Nearly six years on the job, my friend Aira moved to another company, but in an adjacent industry and with the same portfolio. So why shift? I asked. Her response astounded me.
She says in her new job, she can go to the office five days a week, with an option to work from home “as the need arises”. And yet, Aira was among the throngs of knowledge workers who readily welcomed the wholesale shift to remote working at the start of the pandemic.
Her previous employer, she explains, mandated staff to work remotely, with occasional meetings at the office every two weeks or so. With her children at school following months of remote learning, and her partner also back at work, Aira found herself working from home, alone. She plodded on, until she saw her current role advertised.
“Even if I go to the office, I am not required to be there for eight hours,” she says now. “I can go home early and continue to work from home. We are digitally connected through Microsoft Teams, but it can’t compare to face-to-face work,” says Aira, an accountant who handles multimillion dollar contracts for clients.
“Being in the office seems to make the workflow easier. I just turn on my seat and next to me is the area manager who I can easily ask about my queries. There is no need to call or chat (via Teams), and the issues are resolved faster.”
She says the office has a bell the staff can ring after major “work wins” - a deadline met, a contract closed, a project completed. A few days into her role, she has rung the bell twice.
The social aspect of work
Peter van Dyk, a management consultant, understands why some knowledge workers like Aira are seeking face to face interactions, after proving they can successfully do the job remotely.
In one organisation he works with, the majority of team members worked from home at the start of the pandemic. “They wanted to come back to the office as soon as they had the opportunity. All of them kind of miss the social aspect of being around other people and the ability to easily bounce ideas off.”
“I know that technology allows you to do that, particularly from the likes of Microsoft Teams, but you still have to take an active step to do something,” says Peter, who specialises in business and IT strategy and execution. “Whereas, if you are at your desk and you hear something, or a colleague asks a question, you can just answer them. A lot of people miss that impromptu conversation and the social aspect of it.”
He says there are cases where it is easier to collaborate on innovative or creative projects when people are in the same room. “We used to have a lot of strategy sessions where we try to work out a problem or determine how we want to run a project. Typically, what you need is a whiteboard, but most importantly, what you need is the ability for ‘free flow thinking’,” says Peter, who has led business technology teams in health, manufacturing, retail, education and not-for-profits.
“It doesn’t matter if people cut across each other in conversations and get a little bit excited. That generates energy and innovation that you cannot do online.” Whereas, in Zoom meetings, he observes, “You cannot have two people talking at once, you can’t have a good debate.”
“That does not mean they don’t want to have a degree of flexibility around being able to work from home now and again, and even perhaps one day a week or so. People realise that technology is not a barrier anymore and can actually be productive because most of them were during the lockdown. Managers need to recognise that there is a degree of flexibility that needs to be granted.”
Conversely, online meetings are especially good at structured meetings where there is an agenda and you need to get everyone’s opinions, says Peter. “People would not get drowned out if they have an opinion to express.”
Working ‘on my own terms’
Consie Javier, a sales administrator, takes a different approach, opting to continue to work remotely, and go to the office twice a week. “I prefer working from home as it saves me travel time, as well as money. I feel I am also more productive,” she says. “Our company has fully supported us working from home during the first lockdown by providing us equipment such as big monitors and ergonomic chairs.”
Staff discuss their hybrid work schedule with their managers, and most of her colleagues chose to go to the office twice a week. “I am quite fortunate that our company recognises our wellbeing aside from what we do.”
She explains new staff undergo training in the office but can also work from home in agreement with their line manager. “Yes, having that flexibility to have the option to work from home or go to the office under my terms makes me like my job.”
Technology is no barrier to engaging with her workmates. “Since we have online tools such as Microsoft Teams, it doesn't matter if we are face to face or we are online as we can continue to do our meetings without a hitch,” she says. “Our tech tools are enough, as these are changing and improving during the course of time and also depend on the type of role you have in the organisation. If we were able to do work from home during the first lockdown and survive, I don't think it makes a difference now.”
Onsite or remote? Take cues from the sports world
So how can firms lead through this environment where managers and staff have different preferences following their varied experiences over the past two years? In a recent podcast on 'the do's and don'ts of returning to the office', organisational psychologist Adam Grant, turns to sports metaphors to determine the days for remote and onsite work. If the workplace “is full of people playing an individual sport like gymnastics, you can be remote first,” as in the cases of call centre representatives and accountants. “Let everyone divide and conquer their own beam, vault, and floor routines whenever they want, and the whole will be roughly the sum of the parts.”
But if the projects are more like a “relay race”, such as an assembly line at a carpentry shop, staff need more time together, he says. “The person passing the baton needs to be in sync with the person receiving it.”
But the most time together is needed when people are involved in the organisational equivalent of a “true team sport” like soccer. Examples are a research and design laboratory or a consulting team. “When excellence depends on repeatedly passing the ball back and forth, you really want to spend several days a week together.” An organisation that's structured like a soccer team can go with the ‘3-2 model’ or three days at the office and two days at home, he states.
As it is, there are myriad choices for business leaders and their staff as they steer towards'the great return' to work. Collectively, they highlight the need for organisations to continuously adapt - and act deliberately -as they manage the most critical pillar of work, their people, in an ever shifting environment. There is no other way,if they are to play the long game in the post-pandemic world.