Should knowledge workers go back to the office or should we not?

Change is never easy. We like what we are familiar with, what we are used to, even if those may not be optimal. “Better the devil we know than the devil we don’t.” In the last Leadership Memo, I challenged us to reassess why we work the way we do, and reimagine what work can look like. I’m specifically referring to knowledge work, where one can work anywhere as long as there is an internet connection and a laptop. Today, I’d like to examine some resistance to changing the way we work. 

Let’s start with the employees’ perspective. Working from home has removed the barriers between work and home life. So for those who don’t have a quiet place at home to focus, they are longing to go back to the office, so they can concentrate on work. For those who like to be around people, that increases a sense of isolation and leads to burnout. There are others who worry about their job security. The employees who work remotely can get forgotten, even though they may have worked harder, produced better results, and delivered more. They still got passed over in promotion, bonus or salary raise. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Also, every manager knows this: “the hardest people to let go are the ones you know.” There is an impact on physical health as well. “I didn’t realize how much of an impact that had on my physical health as a disabled person, and how much I missed it when it was no longer there.”

Now, let’s look at executive management’s perspective. Most of the executives are from the generations of either baby boomers or Gen X. Some even from the Silent generation. That’s the factory age generation where they learned to climb the corporate ranks by thriving in office life. So, returning to the pre-pandemic status quo makes sense, whereas living on Slack and Zoom does not. Some of those executives also like to see “butt in seat”. They like to see the people they pay for when they go to work. Some others feel heightened anxiety over the white-collar empires they’ve built, including the square footage of real estate they’ve leased and the number of people they’ve hired. There are still other executives who see going back to the office as a symbol of both civic duty and corporate machismo. “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office,” said Morgan Stanley chief executive James Gorman. Last but not the least, despite the fears of many CEOs, many organisations saw no demonstrable loss of productivity during the pandemic. Yet, they still see employees who are very comfortable working from home as least engaged.

So, what can we do to lower the resistance? I would continue to challenge us to rethink what work can be like. What purpose is working in an office trying to achieve? Are those purposes still valid? If so, were those purposes achieved when people were working in the office? Can we achieve the same purpose without being in the office? If so, how? If the purposes are not valid, why are we still doing it? Has your business actually suffered because of remote work? If so, how? Be specific. Our environment has changed, so should the way we work. Executives have to be the first to adapt to the new environment instead of clinging to the outdated office-centric work design. Then they can help lower the employees’ resistance. But watch out for inequality and bias for remote workers in the hybrid office.

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