This ‘Return to the Office’ Rhetoric needs to end.

Photo by Arlington Research on Unsplash

Disclaimer: I know not all jobs can be done from home. This article is aimed at the ones that can be done remotely yet have ‘management layers’ claiming otherwise.

A little over two years ago the world changed almost overnight. Trains were empty, roads reminiscent of scenes from Mad Max and the way we worked switched almost in an instant. Even if we ignore that Covid was the catalyst for this, I believe that this change was going to happen eventually. The pandemic just hastened the event, I figure.

The problem is the hypocrisy that seems to have followed now that the world is returning to a form of how it looked B.C. (Before Covid).

Remote Work Requires Trust

I worked in a company many moons ago that had no official work from home policy, even before Covid was a thing. You had to come into office every day, short of needing to be around your home so the plumber could be let in and fix your indoor swimming pool that had suddenly appeared.

I didn’t like it. Mainly because my team had to be part of an on-call rotation should something go wrong with the systems. It seemed that the company could trust them to work from home at 2 a.m. but not trust them to do the same job at 11 a.m., which is a strange trust model to have with your employees.

I brought in a simple rule. Let me know you are going to work from home before nine in the morning so I don’t wonder if you are off sick and have at it. As long as tasks were completed without me needing to micromanage them then I didn’t really care. It worked, it worked really well. To the point that the human resources department found out about it and gave out to me because I shouldn’t have done it.

The real problem was other teams were asking for the same set up and their managers were not letting it happen.

Then along comes a pandemic, which meant a lot of managers suddenly had to change how they ran their teams.

You see a lot of companies, predominately the ones that are in the I.T. or rely heavily on I.T., shifted to a ‘remote model’. To keep employees safe from the virus, they were sent home and told to work from the comfort of their own four walls. While it is easy to assume that companies did this out of the goodness of their hearts, the reality is this move was the only way they could stay in business when the rest of the world was shutting down completely.

Let’s never forget that the God of Capitalism is all about ensuring revenue comes in while reducing costs going out. As Governments around the world tittered on the verge of suggesting that businesses would have to pay employees regardless of whether they worked or not, businesses realised that having folk work remotely meant they could still continue as a business while paying their employees.

No free money for the workforce, just a different way to deliver things.

Employees were suddenly trusted to continue to perform at the same levels they had in the office, but while working from home. It was a mind-shift that few ever thought would happen at management levels.

It was, when all is said and done, a win-win scenario.

Trust Only Exists As Long As It Suits The Company

Fast forward to the endemic (fingers crossed) and suddenly the mood has shifted for some organisations. Hilariously it is the Big Names, the FAMGs, that are the loudest detractors of the remote work culture. Apparently showing that you can continue to deliver at a high standard, remotely, for two years is not an indicator that you will be able to work like that always.

Smaller organisations are happy to maintain the current status quo of remote employees. Many of them have downsized offices, or sublet floors of buildings with long leases, as they shift to a ‘remote first’ approach for working. Others have closed the office entirely, realizing the numerous benefits to their employees that working remote brings. For many companies the office is typically the largest expense they have, next to salaries and utilities. If you suddenly can cut out the rent and utilities of an office, well that makes your accounts look much nicer.

These forward thinking companies are not simply embracing the ‘new normal’, they are spearheading it.

But what about the Big Names? What’s going on there? Why are the businesses not making multi-millions each quarter doing away with their offices, claiming there has been no drop in performance, when the bigger organisations are saying the opposite?

It’s About The People

‘Collaboration happens best in the hallways.’
‘You can’t whiteboard over a Zoom.’
‘Dropping in at the desk is a good way to build a relationship with somebody.’

These are just some of the reasons being given by Big Names to justify their decrees and, in some cases, mandates, for folk to return to the office. It’s all about that collaborative atmosphere. Just like great novels are thought up while having a shower after the gym, great products are conjured up by two people strolling down a hallway as they grab a cup of coffee from the kitchen.

Creativity isn’t something that can happen over <insert video calling system here> calls for some reason. You need to physically be able to pat each other on the back when coming up with ideas. Having a coffee at the same table is radically different to having a coffee over a video call…apparently.

What’s worse, these ‘reasons’ being used to justify the call for a return to the office are coming from Upper Management. The people many consider to be ‘visionary leaders’ in the industry.

Back when The Pandemic really kicked off a common joke was that middle managers would be the ones to suffer if they did not adapt to the new way of working. But when your Senior Leadership are the ones trying to bring back the old, tired, ways you have to wonder who really was incapable of adapting to a remote working culture.

There are no actual stats to back up these claims either. Companies are still coming up with new solutions to old problems remotely. So why do we need to schlep into an office every day? And while a fully remote model may not work for every scenario, there is an alternative.

Like the cars, time to go Hybrid.

Does a remote-first company culture work for everyone? Of course not. Ignoring the roles people fulfill in an organisation, there are some personalities and personal situations that simply do not fit into a ‘work from home’ or ‘remote work’ model all the time.

Maybe staring at the same four walls seven days a week is too much. Perhaps you’re a person who enjoys the sound of others working around you and the atmosphere of the office. These are fine things to like. Just as introverts (speaking personally) might delight in being able to work with their creature comforts around them. ‘The right tool for the right job’ can easily be paraphrased into ‘the right environment for the right person’.

So how do you handle these situations? You go hybrid.

If people want to work in an office, there can be an office. If they want to work remotely, they can do that. And if they want to come into an office a few days a week, or be asked to be in the office for large meetings, then that’s an option too. But a Hybrid model is only truly Hybrid if it favours the employee over the employer. Being told you can work one day a week from home, but you must request it in advance and it can be denied for any number of reasons is not a Hybrid model. Likewise Hybrid-lite models, were you can work only two days a week remotely and they cannot be Monday or Friday, are just companies putting barriers up to make the office look more appealing than the home-office.

Even if a person works five days a week from home and comes into the office once a quarter for town-hall style meetings, that is a model that will benefit both employee and employer much better than any faux-Hybrid model does.

Companies that advertise an Employee Friendly Hybrid Model (EFHM) are going to be in high demand over ones who don’t. Looking after your people is what makes people want to continue working for you. Telling them that they have to be in an office for no real reason other than ‘we say so’ is what will drive them to leave.

Experience To Prove The Rule

When the Pandemic hit my then employer sent us all home a few days after the first reported cases in the country. We were ahead of a Government edict to work-remotely if possible by about six hours. It was going to be for a few months, it lasted a lot longer. During that time my team adjusted to remote work like the high performing squad they all were. It maybe have helped that we participated in an out-of-hours support rotation that meant of all the teams in the company we were most experienced working remotely already.

However during the pandemic I changed companies. I joined a new organisation and somehow not meeting any of my direct reports for well over a year did nothing to impede my ability to build trust, strong relationships and form another high performing team. Being my own worst critic I know there is nothing extraordinary about me that meant I could somehow be an exception to the rule the Big Names all insisted was impossible. It just meant my style of management worked just as well in the office as remote.

So if I, like countless others, have managed to perform solidly remotely, then what is the real reason for this call back to the office? There is clearly something not being said by the loudest voices calling for butts to be back in seats. That, in itself, is a trust destroying trait to have. If you want people back, tell them the actual reason and stop trying to make up ones that you hope will work.

It’s A Numbers Game

So what is the ‘real’ reason that companies, particularly the Big Names, are all insisting the remote work experiment is over and was an abject failure? I very much doubt anyone reading this doesn’t know that answer already: Money!

Prominent business people seem to be pumping out articles weekly saying that folk need to get back to the office because they are lazy. They need to get back to the office because it fosters collaboration. The office is the greatest place on Earth and working from home is for losers.

At the end of the day they need to get back to the office because money has been sunk into brick and mortar temples to the old ways and now that spending needs to be justified. Or certain property magnates did not diversify their portfolios enough and are now struggling to get people to rent out their gaudy glass buildings in the middle of expensive cities.

Yeah, it’s you work-from-homers that are the real problem. Not a bad business model that figured people would rent offices until the sun burnt out.

Have a look at each article that comes out. It’s always the same rethoric being spouted. Either by the business owner or somebody who is looking to buy a fifth yacht. The people being quoted are the ones that don’t know what a commute is.

Harsh Working Reality

The worst thing about those calling for a return to the office is that it is masking a bigger problem which crept into the working world in recent years.

When did it stop being a 9–5?

Companies with large campuses or multi-floored offices seem to think that a person doing a forty hour week is ‘phoning it in’. Working until six, half six, those people are ‘rock stars’ and ‘hard workers’. Check your contract, nobody says you have to work past five…yet it seemingly is now frowned upon to leave on time. Resulting in two types of people.

Those who cannot manage their time correctly and have to work past five to get things done and those who feel corporate pressure to work past five because others are doing it.

Next thing you know traffic builds up and nobody wants to sit in that all night. Oh, but I can get food in the canteen here which saves me having to cook dinner when I get in late from the commute. Sure why don’t I finish this task, grab a quick bite and then head home. Suddenly we are into a reverse ‘return to the office’ problem. You spend most of your wage each month paying a rent/mortgage for a building you never spend time in. Forget a fifth yacht, you probably can’t even afford the remote control boat in the toy store.

While the Big Names all talk about how great it is to work in their offices because they provide food and fun. Why go home at all? Have you considered a hammock at your desk? Did we mention there are showers on every floor? Oh and if that report could be finished before tomorrow morning, that would be great.

This is the secondary reason they want people back in the office. If you are there, the spend on the premises is justified. Then the reality of the commute means you will probably work later so that you can travel when the world is ‘quiet’.

Suddenly that win-win scenario from before has changed, and the employee is not benefiting anymore.

The Energy Crisis Reinforces Why Hybrid Is Best

Hilariously I read an article online recently about how some business folk are now saying that with the Energy Crisis being felt the world over, coming back to the office makes even more sense. Get your backside into those chairs, because we have light and heat. Who wants to work remotely now?

Let’s ignore the fact that for many this would result in even more cost to their already stretched pay packet as they once again become commuters. Train fares are going to increase, because the cost of fuel is going up. Anyone who thinks this isn’t likely to happen is living in the same world as those individuals who maintain remote workers can’t be trusted to do their jobs. If you are unlucky and have to drive, well that’s a bigger cost again. So you can sit in traffic and watch your hard earned dollars and euros disappear as your car idles between green lights. But that’s okay, because you made it into the office. The only place in the world that collaboration can happen in.

What is the likely outcome of this push back to seats in cubes? Salary negotiation time will be so much worse. Sorry gang, we’re giving you maybe 4%. Wait, what do you mean you want more to cover the cost of the commute? We never told you to drive to work, that’s a cost you have to suck up. No it isn’t the same scenario as us being told to suck up the cost of paying for an empty office. Sure you’re back in the office, isn’t that the best thing ever?

The Benefits Far Outweigh The Office

The benefits of an EFHM or even a fully remote-first culture far outweigh the benefits of getting everyone back into the office full-time again. Even if you stick to a strict 9–5 only working window when at the office, everyone has to commute to some degree.

The lucky few might walk thirty minutes and get to their office desk. But others have to drive to the office or travel get to some form of public transport. Meaning the working day can be 10+ hours when all is said and done. Factor in the universe throwing up random events like breakdowns on the motorway or delayed trains and suddenly a person’s most valuable resource, their time, is being entirely controlled by some else.

Allowing people to work with a model that favours them will increase productivity. Employees with better mental health perform better. Knowing that when they clock off at the end of the day they don’t have to ‘get home’ energizes them. They probably won’t mind doing an extra thirty minutes a day because it doesn’t mean missing several trains home. The work-life balance has never been more important and those calling for a return to the office are stuck so far in the past that even the dinosaurs seem more advanced.

Companies that have embraced a remote-first culture also greatly expand the talent pool they can hire from. You are no longer competing for the same people that everyone else in the city wants to grab. Bidding wars and counter offers, while not exactly a thing of the past, are a lot less likely to happen. People are even taking jobs that offer less than their current base, because the new organisation doesn’t tout remote work as a ‘perk’ but as a ‘standard offering’.

This isn’t a revolution that is happening. People aren’t taking to the streets. It isn’t tied up into the ‘quiet quitting’ nonsense you’d be led to believe is for an entitled workforce. Folk are updating their CV and refreshing their LinkedIn Profiles. The days of having a Big Name in your work history can no longer justify the three hours of your life you won’t get back.

The office isn’t dead, but if you don’t trust your employees to work remotely your company might very well be.

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Derek Power

Derek Power

Head of Cloud Infra by day, gamer by night, author of a comedy-fantasy series called ‘Filthy Henry’ by twilight — Trust me, I always lie.