Home IT management Leaders Need To End Their Focus On The Return To The Office

Leaders Need To End Their Focus On The Return To The Office

Leaders Need To End Their Focus On The Return To The Office


In the U.K., it is the various public sector strikes — by nurses, rail workers and the like — that are attracting the headlines. But, while settlements seem unlikely at present, these disputes are likely to end, eventually. What will probably go on for much longer is the simmering conflict between managers and their employees over where work is done.

Of course, the matter has been an issue for months. But, much like the strikes, tensions have been rising lately as executives sense that, with an economic downturn looming, workers fearful of losing their jobs will be less inclined to insist on the terms and conditions they have enjoyed since the pandemic forced lockdowns. Job losses are indeed already being seen, especially in the technology sector, where Microsoft this week became the latest big name to announce significant lay-offs. But employees still appear to be pushing back against calls for them to return to the office. And, in a sign that this tussle cannot be entirely separated from the industrial action, the escalating cost of living, which is helping to drive the demands for wage rises is also making commuting more expensive and so is a factor in encouraging employees to want to stay at home. As is the fact that rail strikes are making commuting more stressful and time-consuming.

Yet another indication of the links between the two is that both can be seen as attempts to show who has the greater power — as anybody who was around in the 1970s knows, this is never a recipe for a healthy workplace. Yes, the strikes are about pay, but they are also about how valued people feel in their work and the extent to which they have some control over it. It is obvious that changes have to take place in all sectors. Railway companies can no longer expect to see a return to five-days-a-week commuting, despite what some would like to see happen, and will have to adjust their business models accordingly. Similarly, the National Health Service needs to adapt to changing demographics and developments in medicine. Front-line workers are caught up in this. But so are the executives pressing for their people to return to the office, and — rather than looking back — they need to adapt, too.

Leif O’Leary, chief executive of Alegeus, a company that helps organizations provide their employees with the sort of health benefits they really want, says that younger generations of employees bring a new perspective to the workplace. As well as wanting a work/life balance, they have a more consumerist approach and are less interested in the pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all benefits packages of old. In an interview, he suggested that this thinking went beyond benefits to the whole work experience. “I believe there is a lot of power in people coming back together, but to expect it will be like 10 years ago is tone-deaf,” he said.

Nor is he alone in urging employers to take a longer-term perspective. After all, just because the job market might not be as advantageous to workers now as it was, does not mean that things will not change. If and when that happens, those that feel they have been forced to work in a different way could become even more disengaged. There has been a lot of talk already about “quiet quitting,” in which employees do the bear minimum, and this could escalate to real quitting when things improve — as they almost inevitably will.

But employers should not just look at the situation tactically. they need to take a strategic view. Mark DiMassimo, is founder & creative chief of DiGo (DiMassimo Goldstein), which claims to be the world’s first creative agency focused exclusively on promoting better habits by building brands and businesses using “positive behavior change” marketing. In an email this week, he said: “Managements need to look under the hood. They need to ask ‘what is the problem we are trying to solve with mandates?’ If the problem itself is a fallacy — such as the sunk cost of expensive office space going unused, then don’t compound it with expensive back-to-the-office policies. If the problem is team cohesion, seek innovative ways to solve that problem. We have a digital water cooler, all-company summits with lots of togetherness, and meetings in client home cities. In one line: Focus on the possibilities of this necessary change rather than the frustrations. The possibilities are endless.”

And he has a point. The idea that work is done in an office stems from the time when the office was the only place you could do it. Employees did not have computers in their homes and even when they did they could not always access the systems they needed to in order to work. As technology improved, the idea of a fixed office became something of an anomaly that it took the pandemic to expose. Employers have benefited for years from their employees working on their commutes and when they get home. They should not be surprised that they are reluctant to give up some of the autonomy they have gained from the work practices introduced in response to the lockdowns. Like the opponents in the strikes, they need to come to some sort of accommodation that suits all sides.


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