The WFH vs get back to the office conundrum
Updated: Jun 28
It's been going on for months now. The discussion about working from home or returning to the office.
Here in the UK the discussion is more polarised than elsewhere. Fuelled by people in the UK having returned to the office slower than elsewhere.
What has gone before
In March 2020 people were told to stay at home, due to the pandemic. Companies who never in a million years would have allowed staff to work from home, now had to make arrangements to make this happen. It was a huge, overnight change for companies.
It also was a huge, overnight change for people. After the initial euphoria of the new there typically were a number of reactions:
People being really happy being able to work from home - allowing them to be more present at home, not having to pay out crippling public transport costs and being able to be physically and mentally healthy
People - especially those living alone - who were battling feelings of loneliness and struggled with having to stay indoors, or working from home when rules were relaxed
People who wanted to work in a hybrid, doing 'quiet work' at home and work that needed to be done collaboratively in the office
But what lots of people were experiencing was this: they were languishing. That place between thriving and depression. Where everything is a bit - well - flat.
Since governments have declared an end to the pandemic (or at least to the restrictions in place to contain the pandemic) workers HAVE returned to the office.
But what has also happened is this:
People have embraced hybrid working and working from home as the 'new normal'.
Some employers have urged people to come back to the office. Sometimes with:
Peculiar practices (read: Jacob Rees-Mogg, British Member of Parliament and Minister for Government Efficiency, going round Civil Service offices leaving notes on desks saying 'Sorry to have missed you' and urging people to come back),
Incendiary language (Lord Sugar calling workers wanting to work from home 'lazy gits') and
Threats of paycuts (Stephenson Harwood cutting staff's pay by 20% if they want to work from home)
Other companies have decided to introduce flexible working policies (see PwC)
There are staff shortages across sectors, making employees' positions stronger
Rail companies are experiencing lower numbers of commuters and office occupancy is still low (reported to be at 42% in May 2022)
Studies have shown that people working from home are more productive and happier. Studies also show that there is a disconnect between what organisations want and what people are now expecting.
What does it all mean?
For years companies before the pandemic hit were downsizing their offices, introducing hot desks and trying to introduce flexibility in their office spaces.
Some would argue that this change - whilst necessarily introduced at a super rapid rate - was actually long overdue. The technology allowing people to work from home has been available for years and has proven to be robust during the pandemic.
Which means that - as always - it's about the people. That it's the people who want - or don't want - change.
What is changing?
Did you notice that I deliberately didn't say 'the' change?
You see, previously organisational change was initiated from the top. A new IT system was bought. An organisational change was required. Or a culture change was required to become more competitive or to adapt to changing circumstances.
A change programme was initiated by senior leadership and that's how it all started.
This time it's different.
The world around us has changed. We have experienced - first hand - how we can do our work differently. And where during the pandemic we didn't have a choice, we HAD to work from home, now we do!
This means that - instead of change being initiated by the top management, instigated by a necessity to adjust to a changing world - change has now come from within, from companies' own workforces.
Which means that organisations currently appear to initiate two types of change:
Consulting on and adjusting policies to enable working practices that fit employees and support business objectives, or
Imposing a return to the office from the top (see examples above)
How (NOT) to initiate change
Now, as an (ex) Change Manager I've had to sit on my hands and stop myself screaming at times.
Because, notwithstanding some really good examples of companies introducing new ways of working in response to employee demands, generally I've been a lot less impressed with the ways of introducing change.
A compelling reason for change
So far I've heard the following reasons:
Because - you know - creativity and innovation happens when you queue in front of the coffee machine or when chatting at the water cooler.
The trains are empty! The coffee and sandwiches economy is suffering! Our expensive Central London real estate is empty!
You bl**dy well should do what I tell you (giant exclamation mark). And you're all snowflakes, lazy g*ts and want to be treated like pop stars.
Unsurprisingly people are not overly impressed with any of the above. And it has most definitely not led to people returning to the office in droves.
2. A sense of urgency
Nowhere have I heard that there is a sense of urgency to make a return to the office necessary. No one has been able to explain EXACTLY why and when all this working from home is going to come crashing down on us.
3. Helping people make their own minds up
People are - well - people, and adults too. Who can make adult decisions. As long as they are treated as adults.
It means that leaders and managers should be empowered to work with people and agree the best working practices with them.
Agreement, not expectations, will make change happen.
Weighing business demand against workers demands
Now don't get me wrong I do understand that it's not all about the employee. You can't get your way all the time. In the end it is the business objectives that need to be met, and it's the people's job to help make those objectives happen. In the best way possible.
Which means, again, that there needs to be a grow-up conversation about how best to deliver those objectives. And that those conversations may lead to the agreement (see? agreement again!) on what activities need to be delivered face to face, and which ones are best done in a quiet environment.
It may also lead to managers and leaders needing to think carefully about how best to facilitate employee engagement activities and how best to stimulate innovation and creativity.
What you can do
I'm conscious I've talked a lot about the wider picture, and about change in organisations. And not a lot about you, and the role you play in all this. Which is what I'm going to do right now.
Because you ARE that employee, that person who works in an organisation going through this change.
Or you ARE that employee-to-be who needs to choose her next steps and wants to get it right.
Which is why I'm going to suggest the following things YOU can do:
You've lived it. You know what it's like to work 40+ hours in an office, with the commute in and the commute out. You know what it's like to work 40+ hours at home, on Teams calls and have a 10 meter commute from your bedroom to your desk. You may - by now - even know what a hybrid model looks like for you.
More importantly you know what works for you. You know how you feel. When you do your best work. What fits best with the rest of your life. (And if you don't, now might be a good time to reflect?).
Use this knowledge to do the following.
When in a job:
Have the conversation
You may already have had the conversation. The one with your manager, in which you agreed how best to work. If not, be really clear about what works for you, but also in what way you believe you can best serve and achieve the company objectives.
Agree what activities have to be done in the office
People have wildly different ideas of what needs to be done in the office and what can be done at home. Obviously there are jobs that can only be done away from the home. But for office-based jobs there still remain a number of tasks that people believe are best done face to face. They may include: employee engagement activities, building relationships, collaboration, activities that require innovation and creativity, induction, training and mentoring.
Discussing these activities with your manager and reaching agreement on how best to carry out these activities (and engage other people) I believe is the best way of looking after your own needs AND looking after the company objectives too.
Engage in and contribute to employee engagement activities
The other day I read a LinkedIn post. Amongst all the shouts in favour of homeworking it gave a sobering account of what it is like to experience loneliness in and outside of the office (you can read it here).
What struck me most was that - even if people are in the office - you can still feel lonely. Because the right people aren't there. Because people may have almost forgotten what it's like to interact with each other informally. Because, even if it's lonely at home, being in an office might feel overwhelming.
Which is where your own initiative comes in. Because you might not believe that the employee engagement activities are necessary for YOU (or maybe you do). But it is guaranteed that someone in the team craves the informal interaction.
If no one else is organising something in the office, then perhaps that ought to be you? Something informal? Something fun? Something light-hearted? Something that helps people be less lonely, even when in the office. Something to initiate and help facilitate collaboration opportunities?
If choosing a new employer:
Understand flexible working policies
Before you join it is good to understand what the company's policies are around flexible working. So that you can check how they align with how you do your best work and how you want to organise your life. Sometimes you can find these policies online. If not, you may be able to ...
Ask questions at interview
An interview is a two-way street. It would be a wasted opportunity if - during (a second) interview - you ask about flexible working policies. Openly, or if more appropriate, covertly in the form of a 'what does a 'day in the life' look like for you?' type question.
Discuss your requirements if possible
The further into the interview or even offer stage the more necessary it is to discuss your requirements. How often do you want to work from home? At what time do you need to drop the kids off? What requirements are there to travel? All legitimate (and necessary) questions to ask and requirements to discuss.
Choice, happiness and flexibility
This blog has been brewing for a long time. And finally it was triggered by another LinkedIn post. It talked about how the state of languishing was brought about by a lack of choice.
It was the missing piece of the puzzle.
It's choice that allows people to have a feeling of control over their life.
This sense of control will enable people to feel happier (and move them out of this languishing state - remember, that state between thriving and depression)
Given the opportunity the great majority of people will make sensible choices when being allowed and empowered to make them - which will mean that in great changes, which this return to the office after Covid is, it is eminently sensible to allow people that choice
Happy people are more productive.
Happy people are - well - happier!
YOU have a choice too, about where you'd like to go next or about staying. About making a determined effort to feel happier, wherever you are. To actively participate, or not. To leave for something better. Somewhere that has working practices more in alignment with your needs, your requirements and how you do your best work.
Choice, flexibility and agreement leads to happiness and productivity. When you treat people like adults they will make adult decisions.
Surely it's not difficult?
Tineke Tammes is an ICF accredited Career Coach, who supports creative, multi-passionate, professional women in making successful career transitions! Besides that she is also a lifelong feminist, part-time portrait artist, never-only-read-one-book-at-any-time reader, and obsessive doodler. Oh, and she knows a bit about change management too.
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