OFFICES IN THE NEW NORMAL: To Return or not to Return?

In many corporations right now, there is an ongoing fight over ‘the new normal’ as far as returning to the physical office – after months of working from home – is concerned. But Instead of rushing to repopulate offices made empty by Covid-19 restrictions, writers like Adrian Wooldridge have made the case that companies should instead reflect on the pandemic’s lessons about how, when and where employees perform at their best. 

Across the world, bosses are issuing thunderous memos telling their staff that they are expected back at their desks. Many workers, in turn, are far from enthusiastic at the thought of resuming the daily commute (which in cities such as Lagos is nothing short of an endurance test). In some cases, these workers are working out their resistance strategies. Should they simply ignore the memos? Or drag their feet as much as possible: Can’t March be pushed back to April, and April to May? Or should they retire early? Or even invent a new disability – like, fear of being loaded into crowded vehicles and forced to breathe other people’s disease-carrying breath?

To be fair, some companies have already embraced the work-from-anywhere future. Like Arvind Krishna, the CEO of International Business Machines Corp., some executives are asking themselves: “Why should I, as an employer, care as long as you can get the work done and you’re highly productive?” And some workers, especially the younger ones, actually prefer working in the office, either because they are short of space at home or because they simply want to draw a firm line between home and work. 

But this situation nevertheless tells us something important. The recruiting firm Korn Ferry says its data analysis suggests that there is a growing gap between executive and employee visions of the ideal work environment.  For example, it says 53% of U.S. companies consider themselves either ‘fully office’ or ‘mostly office’ workplaces – while 78% of their knowledge workers say they want ‘location flexibility.’ Concerning this disparity in workplace preference, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co. was at least honest enough to say out loud what many other CEOs were thinking: “People don’t like commuting to work – but so what?” In other words, we pay you, we OWN you.

To be fair, though, bosses’ worries over the new normal are understandable: having spent billions if not trillions of dollars collectively buying or renting real estate, they want a return for their investment. Leaving a desk empty is tantamount to burning money, in their view. But working in a physical office also includes things like work culture and creativity; for example, how will new recruits be trained and acculturated into the distinctive ways of the company if the old hands are working from home? And how will companies continue to innovate if workers don’t bump into each other by accident and chitchat over coffee? 

For their part, though, workers want to defend their quality of life. The period of enforced working from home during the pandemic has not only allowed them to reconnect with their families, neighbours and pets, it has also taught them that they can be just as productive (if not more so) if they are free from the time wasted during the rush-hour commute, not to mention the petty distractions of the office. A study by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in July 2021 found that worker output per hour in the U.S. rose by 3.1% in 2020 – that’s more than double the growth rate in the previous business cycle. Also, a Harvard Business School study of the same time frame of more than 3 million people from more than 21,000 firms during Covid lockdowns in 16 cities in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East showed the average workday lasting 8.2% longer – that is, an extra 48.5 minutes. Wall Street banks posted record profits and revenues during the pandemic – despite the long-held belief that banking is the classic face-to-face business.

Is there any way of avoiding a destructive tug-of-war between workers and their bosses through compromise and conciliation? The most widely touted solution to the problem is what some are calling ‘the hybrid workplace’: that is, employees spend two or three days a week working from home and two or three days working in the office. 

Though this idea is popular, it is really not clever as it sounds. For one thing, it doesn’t solve the problem; employees will fight over who gets the three days and who gets the two. For another, it will create a logistical nightmare. How do you make sure that workers don’t all take the same days away (usually Mondays and Fridays)? How do you deal with the split between workers who may be working remotely and dialling into conference calls while others are in the office? And how do you deal with the possible emergence of a two-track workforce — people who turn up every day and those who prefer to work at home? Studies showing that people of colour and highly educated women with young children are relatively keener to work from home make the two-track problem even more troubling. If offices confer big advantages in terms of culture and creativity, why only go there for two days a week; and if they don’t confer those advantages, why go there at all?

A better solution, according to the aforementioned Wooldridge, would be to engage in a more fundamental rethink of office work. The pandemic has encouraged management experts to ask some really searching questions about white-collar work. What are offices for? Do they really encourage creativity? And even if they do, are a few random encounters worth the rush of commuting? Are offices the best ways of delivering obvious corporate goods such as creativity and cultural continuity? Or are better ways available? 

The pandemic has also unleashed a wave of creativity in far-sighted companies like the software firm Dropbox Inc., which has deliberately avoided the hybrid model. Dropbox employees get together in the office at least once a quarter to work as a team and reinforce bonds, but do individual work from home. Under this plan, the company won’t have traditional offices but will instead have “studios” configured for these occasional meetings. 

That said, here, according to Wooldridge, are some principles that should guide management’s thinking about reinventing the office for the post-Covid world.

Don’t impose one-size-fits-all solutions: Managers need to focus on what is appropriate for particular tasks, rather than on targets for getting people back into the office. The office might be an ideal place for brainstorming sessions or performance reviews. But it is foolish to travel long distances to the office to do something that you can do equally well at home, such as processing information or reading scripts.

Don’t assume that offices alone hold the key to creativity: Offices can be as much about distraction as creative interaction – from the noisy neighbour on the phone all day, or the over-friendly colleague constantly dropping in to see how you’re doing. The open-plan revolution (the attempt to encourage the circulation of ideas by knocking down cubicle walls and creating open spaces) has produced mixed results. One study of a major American company that had abandoned cubicles for an open-plan arrangement found that face-to-face interactions actually decreased by 70% while digital interactions rose to compensate. Workers seal themselves off from the hubbub of the borderless world by wearing headphones and communicating by email with people sitting in the same room.

Explore other ways of transmitting corporate culture: Executives tend to think that just because they learned their jobs by putting in 15-hour days and occasionally running into corporate legends in the restroom, then that is the only way of preserving corporate culture. But there are other ways of transmitting the corporate DNA which doesn’t rely on long hours justified by the occasional chance meeting – such as organizing boot camps either in the office or elsewhere; arranging regular social get-togethers, and running mentoring programs both on- and off-line. 

The Covid 19 pandemic has demonstrated how quickly the corporate world can configure itself in the light of an existential shock. It would be a tragedy, then,  if companies ignore everything they have learned over the past two years in a rush to fill empty desks and get back to the (far from ideal) world before the coronavirus came.

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