ow that the pandemic is subsiding in most western geographies, many leaders want their people to return to the old way – at least for part of their time. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that home working is diluting their organisational culture and diminishing a great source of creativity, productivity and cohesion. As a result, employees are being forced to go to the office for 2-3 days a week whether they like it or not.
The problem is that people have developed new habits and patterns of working and living while anchored to their homes and believe they can do their work effectively without attending the office. After all, they did it perfectly well for the past two years, so why should they start making the commute again just because some ‘out of touch’ manager says they should?
You can see the dilemma. With this in mind, it’s worth exploring some of the powerful reasons that people may not want to head back to the office:
- Cost: Working from home might increase energy bills, but it also reduces the cost of the commute. For people on an ‘average’ salary, this could amount to as much as a 25% tax-free wage rise. As the cost of living increases, disposable income is at severe risk of reducing.
- Further away: During the pandemic, a great deal of people decided to move away from the city to more remote locations for quality of life. This group doesn’t want to commute long distances on a daily basis now that they are further away.
- Value of the office: These days, lots of knowledge workers have jobs which involve interacting with people in different regions and have less to do with colleagues in the nearest office. Many returning to the workplace for the first time have found the very people they need to collaborate with are not actually at their place of work on the same day anyway.
- Personality: The office was the domain of extroverts, who enjoyed the community that the office offered. The opposite was true for introverts or the socially anxious, which make up a substantial percentage of the population.
Getting the best out of all worlds
Of course, with hybrid working, with the right leadership and thinking, organisations can have their cake and eat it too. Knowledge workers can do all the things that require focus at home (assuming their environment permits) and go to an office when they need to work on complex tasks with others, socialise, attend events or drink at the cultural well.
Social cohesion is the lubricant of the knowledge work world. Although it can be nurtured online, there is no substitute for having a coffee or beer, breaking bread or getting around a whiteboard to work on a tough problem. But does everyone need this every day? I doubt it.
So, the question is: how do we arrive at a new hybrid working norm that makes sense to everyone? Pre-pandemic, firms needed ‘change management’ or ‘transition programmes’ to help their employees move to new agile work models and get rid of old habits that were generated through years of repeated office practices. Post-pandemic, the same is true.
To overcome the new habits and attitudes generated through the COVID crisis, change programmes will be needed again to help organisations and their people adapt to new hybrid norms, balancing face-to-face-in-the-same-space with online interaction.
Setting a 2-3 day minimum number of days policy on-site isn’t cutting it. Employees feel their intelligence is being insulted by these mandates, which as they see it, are patronising and make no sense in the context of their working roles.
New world, new rules
Moving forward, companies must engage employees in developing new working principles and rules, and communicating these through champion networks and other mechanisms to get everyone excited. Then, they need to raise people’s awareness of the value that being together brings.
Leaders need to upskill so they can understand what it takes to manage hybrid teams, including facilitating new team-based working arrangements to support the business, the team and the individual.
Teams have to work out how they will maintain each other’s trust, strengthen relationships and share information whereby they indicate when they are on duty and off duty. They need to determine the best times to use video or have physical get-togethers. Most importantly, they should figure out when it’s OK to say ‘no’ to tasks placed on them, and how they will deal with tensions in the team.
It’s clear that there’s no going back to pre-pandemic working arrangements. But making the new hybrid world work will take more than an email or two from the C-suite. The transition to hybrid working will require a proactive and well-designed programme of reinvention for organisations to get the most from this new age.
Andrew Mawson is the founder of Advanced Workplace Associates, a company that helps business leaders use scientific research to enhance human and organisational performance