COVID-19 has fundamentally changed our relationship with the Office. After the enforced use of the lockdown that forced nearly 40% of the labor force to work from home, some of us want to return to pre-pandemic conditions.
Yes, we miss workplace sociality, but surveys show that at least three-quarters of us want the option of working at home some days and in the office some days.
But what exactly is the right balance?
Read more: It’s not just separation. There are surprising disadvantages to working from home
The experience of working from home has helped break many of the prejudices limiting work flexibility before 2020. But there is a clear difference in the point of view between workers and managers on this question. As the Productivity Commission of Australia notes in a September 2021 research paper:
There are real or perceived costs to working from home, such as fewer opportunities for collaboration and networking, decreased face-to-face interactions with managers, and consequences for long-term career prospects.
That last point is of particular concern. A pre-pandemic study found that despite being 13% more productive, those who spent their time in the office were only half as likely to be promoted as their colleagues.
The reasons for this are likely to be complicated – a combination of explicit attitudes and subconscious biases. Their persistence poses a threat to post-COVID organisations. In particular they can be at a disadvantage to those with caregiver responsibilities, who want more flexibility.
So how many days a week are enough in the office? How do we balance managers’ desire to bring people closer together with employees’ desire for greater flexibility?
Preferred number of working days at home by occupation
Some organizations are adamant that it is necessary to go back to the office all or most of the time. For example, take Google.
The Silicon Valley giant has won awards for its open corporate culture. Its products have provided convenience like any other company in the telecom revolution. But in September Google said it would permanently reduce the wages of its US employees to work from home.
A company spokesperson justified this on the grounds that Google always pays employees “based on the local market where an employee works”. But given the company’s longstanding opposition to remote work, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a stick to pull employees back into the office. Opting to work from home may cost some employees up to 25% of their salary.
If that’s Google’s attitude, just imagine what happens in more conservative managerial cultures. In fact it is largely managerial fear that has hindered the potential for greater work flexibility as technology made “teleworking” a possibility in the 1970s.
Read more: 50 years of bold predictions about remote work: it’s not all about the technology
Concerns about innovation and productivity have been cited for decades as workers being in the office most of the time, with research indicating that there is no need for us to be in the office every day to maximize the benefits of collaboration. The live experience of the pandemic has helped ease these concerns, but not completely.
These approaches are arguably associated with a “legacy” model of management – a model in which facts as well as attitudes fail to change. Bundy watches and other obvious forms of command and control may have been abandoned, but there are still often unwritten expectations about such things as not giving up in front of the boss and giving unpaid overtime prerequisites for pay increases and promotions.
So the big question isn’t really what is the optimal mix of days at the office and at home. Experts agree that there is no one-size-fits-all model for hybrid work. It should really depend on the context and the individuals. Maybe it’s a four-day week at the office, maybe it’s one.
The question is why the managerial attitude is taking so long to reach reality.
There is now extensive research showing that employees are more effective and satisfied at their jobs when they have the flexibility to customize their work. This flexibility includes not only when we work from home or the office for a few days, but also when we work, who we work with and what we are working on.
After a career of doing things only one way, it seems that many managers simply don’t know how to manage differently.
Our organizations are not made up of one type of person and one type of job, which is often overlooked by our management structures and organizational initiatives. Success in a post-COVID world will depend on thinking differently and creating a culture that embraces the opportunities of this new model of work.
That’s the conversation we need to have – wherever we are.