As the rise of COVID cases seems to be slowing down and more employees are getting vaccinated, several tech and financial organizations have started reopening their physical offices. The Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase & Co. have begun bringing their staff back to their buildings in New York City last February. While Meta (Facebook) and Microsoft planned to adopt a hybrid work model by March 28th, Alphabet (Google) and Apple have scheduled the same this coming April.

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for work setup in this transition phase. Twitter and Reddit have expressed that their workforce is still free to work from home permanently. According to Gartner, 90% of employers are adopting hybrid model this year. However, analysts from the consulting firm expect that there will be a shift towards back-to-the-office full time because of higher turnover rates and perceived loss of organizational culture. It is highly likely that most companies are still observing how others are adjusting before executing their Return-to-Office plans.

Figure 1: Companies and their workplace strategies compiled by Hubble as of March 23rd, 2022. (Office-first means employees are expected to be in the office five days a week while remote-first means to work fully remote).

The gap

Several surveys showed a seeming disconnect between employees and executives in the way they view work. From the study done by Future Forum, almost half of the executives working remotely (44%) reported that they would prefer working from the office daily compared to only 17% of employees with similar preference. The same trend was revealed in the data pointed out by the recruiting firm Korn Ferry that 78% of knowledge workers favor “location flexibility”, meanwhile 53% of US companies described themselves as “fully office” or “mostly office” workspaces.

A lot were wary that workforce may not be as productive in the work-from-home setup; however, the pandemic has proven otherwise. Research found that remote employees work 1.4 more days per month than their office-based counterparts. Aside from avoiding the stressful commute to work, remote workers are able to spend more time with their family and pets, manage childcare responsibilities, and maintain better work-life balance. Undoubtedly, this is not a perfect setup for everybody, but more employees seem to enjoy its benefits. In fact, the Pew Research Center revealed that 61% of employees continue to work from home because they want to, and fewer workers cite COVID as main reason they want to work from home (from 57% in 2020 to 42% in 2021).

Apart from the ROI on office investment or rental costs, organizational culture and creativity (Ibid) are considerations for executives to push for return-to-office. They believe that office spaces facilitate the sense of belonging among employees. Bringing people back in shared space can effectively help in mentoring new hires. It also provides employees chance encounters in elevators and kitchen pantry, among others that promote socialization and innovation. As what JP Morgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon said last year: “It doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture”.

Hybrid working

Indeed, the advantages of working from home are mostly beneficial for employees while the advantages of working from the office are usually valuable for the organization. To meet halfway, most companies adopt the hybrid working system. Some are required to go to the office at least 2 or 3 days a week, while they spend working from home on the other days. Brian Elliott, the Future Forum’s Executive, argued that hybrid setup actually allows work-life balance while still providing sense of community for the workers. Modern technology can connect employees and offers equal opportunity for everyone by filtering out biases that are usually present in the office. For him, “using digital tools is really important to building a culture for people who aren’t the average white male executive. Companies that invest in modern tools and in rethinking how they bring people together will do better than those insisting in full-time office work”.

Redesigning work

The pandemic has revolutionized the way people work and knowing what the new set up can bring to the table, it is unthinkable that companies would want to go back to full time office work. Naturally, it is easier to stick to what the organizations have gotten used to, but being creative and finding balance between business needs and employee engagement would definitely be worth it.

Here are some companies that are implementing better solution by rethinking office work.

  • Employees at the Dropbox Inc., a software company, will work from home but will meet at least once in a quarter to connect with colleagues and work as a team. Their office will not have the traditional design, but workers will be provided with “studios” for their meetings.
  • Alphabet Inc. featured shared desks and central white boards that they call “team pods” which can be rearranged according to the size of the group. They also have “campfires” where in physical attendees will sit in circles fitted with vertical displays so remote workers can participate in conversations in the office.
  • While com Inc. booked a 75-acare retreat in the redwoods in Scotts Valley 70 miles south of San Francisco. This will serve as a retreat venue for new employees to introduce them to the company’s culture and to hold team meetings.

The workarounds

The following are some points to consider when traversing in transition to better work setup.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution (Ibid). When deciding whether to bring the employees back into the office, it is better to focus on what is appropriate for particular tasks instead of the targets. It is mindless to keep pushing for remote working when the job is not appropriate for this setup. It is even more so to require employees to work at the office when they can do the tasks equally well at home.

Going beyond the box. Maybe, it is high time that we look outside the box and stop viewing offices as the only space that fosters productivity, innovation, creativity, and culture. Echoing Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, a productive work is “about the purpose and the process that you bring to your job… not about the place you happen to be doing it in”.

Organizational culture is not always about traditions. Although we tend to stick to old ways, it is also worth exploring to try other ways of imparting corporate culture. Leaders can organize boot camps outside the office, regular social get-togethers, facilitating mentoring programs both on- and off-line, among others.

Listen to your people. Ask and be curious about your employees’ concerns and check what your company can do to assist them. For instance, if your employees are hesitant to go back to the office because of their child-care responsibilities at home, putting up an on-site childcare facility can be a solution.

Author: Lucil Aguada

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