One of our team has been isolating with his family for two weeks now as they all take turns testing positive for COVID, which has left Natasha with a case of the workplace 'lonelies'. She has been having coffee's left and right to get herself some company. It’s also allowed her to tune in to what others are thinking about this strange period we are collectively living through.
She noticed the chats always end up back at the same questions: Should companies try to bring employees back to the office? Are there exceptions to the rule? Will work life ever be the same?
Around the world, corporates and governments are definitely trying to force people back into the office. The British Government made headlines by leaving snarky notes on desks. The famously tough US investment bank Goldman Sachs simply mandated a return to the office (“show me the money!”). Elon Musk has followed suit, issuing a memo to staff at Tesla requiring a minimum of 40 hours in the office. And if they decline? They can “pretend to work somewhere else,” he sniped.
Here in New Zealand, the city council and Government in Wellington have ‘encouraged’ staff to come back to the office to support downtown small businesses. In spite of the phase-out of formal lockdowns as a COVID mitigation strategy, foot traffic and consumer spending in the capital city was down 30% early this year, a clear sign that office workers are not physically back on location en force.
Tell, sell, we don’t care
But people don’t like being told what to do. When Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote to employees telling them they’d need to return, he promptly received a letter back from staff telling him he and his team were out of touch and people would not be back on his schedule (if at all).
Contrast that approach with that of AirBnB, CEO Brian Chesky, who told staff they could work from anywhere. Other tech companies have adopted a similar approach. The CEO of Shopify announced the shift to fully remote work in mid-2021, declaring that, “Office centricity is over”. Reddit opted to let employees choose their preferred mode of working and has eliminated location-based compensation, instead linking pay ranges to the highest cost areas in the US. Slack, Atlassian, Spotify, and Dropbox have all followed the path of flexible work as well, with many and varied approaches to the roll-out and management of their workforce.
Like others around the world, organisations in New Zealand are adopting a hybrid model: work from home sometimes and from the office sometimes. For example, Barnes and Perpetual Guardian are reducing their office space and giving employees the choice of where they want to work. This jibes with a recent survey from the US which showed that 70% of employees want the option to continue working remotely. Employees appreciate – and now expect – the flexibility that comes with hybrid working and the fact that hybrid workers are happier. Yet, ironically, the danger of the hybrid model is that companies are being too flexible and producing a sloppy slide into confusion and a messy system that leaves no one happy.
Research conducted by Microsoft shows that 38% of hybrid employees say that knowing when and why they need to come into the office has been their biggest challenge navigating work in recent months. The study showed that only 28% of leaders explained why and when to go to the office.
But to achieve this clarity, firms need to walk a fine line between what executive leaders expect and want (“Let’s get back to normal”) and instead confront their assumptions (“We can just tell people what to do” or “People want to come back”) and recognise that all employees are not the same. There is not one right way (Elon Musk notwithstanding).
In our work with clients, we’ve found good companies do three things really well in stepping over the line into the new world of hybrid work.