Undoubtedly, remote working has been a success. It is fairly safe to say both employers and employees now recognise the many benefits of remoting working. Increased flexibility and a better work-life balance for workers, potentially lower overheads and expanded hiring reach are attractive to employers and businesses. That said, prolonged remote working has not been without its downsides, meaning calls from business leaders to a return to office-based working are growing louder by the day.
The Challenges Facing Business Leaders
It is perhaps an understandable reaction after such a long time out of the office, but with remote working now the new normal, getting everyone back to the office will not be that simple. Throughout our Tomorrow’s Workplace series, we will discuss the reasons for and against heading back to the office, what workplace models are available and what steps leaders should take to engage staff moving forward.
The Problems of Going Back
Firstly, businesses looking to get staff back to the office on a full-time basis will need to make significant adjustments to the physical aspects of their offices. They will need to ensure extra space for distancing, install hand sanitisers, improve ventilation, and implement building access control and logging measures. The list goes on and on, so check out this guide to returning to office-based working.
But there is another issue that many business leaders are overlooking or ignoring. A significant number of employees don’t want to go back to the office, at least not full time. People have become accustomed to not commuting to work every day and enjoy the extra flexibility this entails. Further to this, many commuters are saving significant amounts of money by foregoing the rush hour grind and have lots of extra time for themselves and their families.
By taking these benefits away, business leaders should expect push back from their employees. A good number of employees have never been so productive as they have over the past year. Meanwhile, other employees have had to make significant changes and sacrifices as they twisted and contorted their lives to stay productive to balance work, homeschooling and life.
If leaders exclude employees from the discussion, the reaction will be instant dissatisfaction, resulting in potentially lower output and higher staff turnover.
So Why Go Back to the Office?
The reasons cited by business leaders range from reduced productivity and creativity to erosion of trust and company culture stemming from months of home office working. Interestingly, many of these concerns have been raised most vocally by larger, more traditional, and hierarchical organisations such as those within the banking and finance sector.
Nevertheless, such concerns are valid and, given the difficulties of lockdown, easy to understand. For example, employees with younger children or less space at home will have found remote working particularly challenging and may have struggled to maintain pre-pandemic output and quality levels.
What’s more, people are naturally social. Even the most strong-minded employee will at some point struggle with the feeling of separation that comes from long-term remote working. And what about office chat, the source of creativity within a company? Remote working does mean opportunities for office chitchat are few and far between if companies do not find alternative channels for employees to connect on informally.
TThen, there’s the issue of trust. Trust comes from communicating, connecting and being together. You instantly trust someone more when you see them every day, and in business, this applies to both leaders and employees. It is well-known that remote workers are often at a higher risk of “burnout” due to working longer hours, partly because it’s difficult to switch off and partly because they strive harder just to be “seen” to be working effectively, an effect known as Digital presenteeism. Presenteeism and Digital presenteeism is a serious issue for businesses that affects pay, promotions and more, so we will take a closer look in an upcoming post.
This all speaks for a return to the office and the way things were, but the question is should we?
Should We Keep Working Remotely?
Remote working has the potential to deliver considerable business benefits from lower overheads to increased reach and productivity. Remote working can help Businesses can save considerable sums in overheads in terms of lower office space requirements, utility consumption and so on. But does this saving automatically transform into greater profitability?
The Tech industry believes it can and therefore has a much more optimistic view with regards to remote working and are keen to promote the numerous benefits and see remote working playing an ever-increasingly important role in tomorrow’s workplace.
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Why does remote working work for tech and not finance? Because tech companies are innovators and disruptive by nature. The whole company is structured around innovation and as a result have adopted applications, practices and a company culture that promote remote working, trust and collaboration.
Without remote working, big tech companies would need branch offices in literally every city worldwide to maintain their global presence and attract the best talent. Without collaboration tools, that talent and the dispersed teams they work with couldn’t operate as an effective unit and given the growth of the Tech Industry over not just the last year but also the past decade - it seems to be working.
The difference between Tech and Finance is their differing approach to business and this translates into individual strengths and needs being recognised and promoted as opposed to employees being pigeonholed to all work the same way, in the same place. As a result, there is a higher degree of flexibility and trust within Tech organisations which in turn creates a productive, creative and engaged workforce.
So Who’s Right, Tech or Finance?
Unfortunately, both approaches are neither right nor wrong and here’s why: tech companies had significantly more remote working experience pre-pandemic and were therefore well placed to maintain productivity. In more traditional sectors like finance, employee level remote working was previously unheard of and such companies were therefore not well enough equipped either technologically or organisationally. So the approach you adopt will depend on your business’s technological and organisational capabilities.
Naturally, there is a middle ground, which most businesses will likely look to adopt in some form and that’s Hybrid Working, a mixture of office-based and remote working, which will be the topic of one of our next posts.