I am often asked how I feel about future work. I think a lot about what the pandemic has taught us, but I wonder if everyone has learned the same lessons and what trends will remain.
Before the pandemic, there was a sense that collaboration couldn’t happen unless people were in close proximity. Creating large open offices was the norm, and working from home was the exception, not the rule. Now that this paradigm has changed, many people work from home, especially knowledge workers. We have all been part of a great social experiment that has effectively demonstrated that work can be done successfully from anywhere.
However, despite the large body of data showing that telecommuting can indeed work, a number of companies are recalling their employees to the office. The question arises: why?
One size does not fit all
There’s a camp of people who talk poetically about the good old days of being in the office, the conversations with the water cooler, and the general energy the office can bring-these people enjoy the solace of the office as much as I do. I also won’t deny that many people need connection, but I would say that the frequency of connection varies greatly from person to person and demographic to demographic. The way we used to work is no longer there. We need to focus on the next normal and establishing new customs and expectations of what the workplace has become.
It is illogical to demand that everyone return to the office five days a week. The essence of human behavior is that once you offer something, like telecommuting, it’s pretty hard to go back to the old way of working, if at all.
Avoiding lost costs
In business, there is a term ‘sunk costs,’ which is defined as costs that have already been incurred and therefore are not recoverable. In a business context, sunk costs compared to a pandemic would be multi-year leases of real estate, equipment and other assets that have been paid for. Many executives may see these investments as a waste of time if there are no employees there to use the corporate income.
As more and more employees need to stay home, these sunk costs become more apparent, and this may be the driving force behind the return of office space.
The solution is a balancing act of meeting the needs of both business and staff, as well as communicating to employees the real reasons for the decision. The reality is that some roles need to be in the office and some don’t. Make sure the rationale fits the situation and clearly explain to manage expectations as to why.
There are some leaders who are insecure and distrustful — they believe that if you can’t physically see the team that the team will be incomplete. Others thrive on interpersonal connections. Whatever the reason, most employees know what they need to do and do their jobs regardless of where they are. You don’t need to check over your employees’ shoulders or conduct roll calls to see if they are contributing. The output from set overall goals tells you if everything is going according to plan.
As one of the management traits, leaders need to look inside themselves and examine whether the urge to return to the office is driven by business needs or managerial prerogative. When you have a team of mixed needs, management preferences can take a backseat to team needs and overall productivity, resulting in business growth and improved profits. And when hiring, organizations must adjust the hiring process with trust in mind and ensure that those hired can work successfully from a distance.
There are many tools available for collaboration, and more and more tools are being created every day to facilitate the fruitful exchange of ideas, both remotely and virtually. Leaders need to consistently create more cross-functional work and curate digital forums that encourage visibility and partnerships.