Slowly, societies are reopening. Many employers are now calling back their workers to return to work from the office. Morgan Stanley’s CEO argued that ‘If You Can Go To A Restaurant In New York City, You Can Come Into The Office.’ Employers are concerned that organizational culture is eroding, workers are losing social connections, and the ability to think creatively as parts of teams.
Already, governments are asking themselves how to approach this question. In the UK case, the government is thinking about making working from home a “default” right – a politically debated idea that could take many forms and shapes.
Regulators and politicians are between a rock and a hard place. Governments want city centers and business districts to come back to life, for both the economy of those areas (usually full of coffee places and restaurants where salaries are being spent!), and support transport companies that take commuters from home to their work. They also want to lend a sympathetic ear to those businesses insisting on having their workers back in the office.
How remote work shifted from being a blessing to a curse
With the COVID pandemic, we all discovered the joys of working from home. For a while, it worked well, it offered more flexibility to manage family responsibilities and dependents, and it made many of us escape time-consuming commutes. We rapidly learned how to make the most of it, adapting our coordination modes and capitalizing on new tools such as Teams.
However, we also started working after hours; our new work patterns blurred the boundary between our professional and personal lives. A direct consequence was a notable wave of burnouts hitting organizations across the world. More generally, remote work has harmed our social relationships at work and the social fabric of organizations. As pointed out by the Oatmeal in a particularly humorous way, it also had adverse consequences for our health, making remote work an “ergonomic timebomb”.
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In this context, relying entirely on remote work has erased all the benefits the practice could have. Instead of enabling us to better manage our stress, it has heightened our work-related anxieties without the ability to signal and normalize our struggle with colleagues. Onboarding has become impossible, and many new joiners have experienced the struggle to understand their organization’s implicit values and practices. It is thus no surprise many employers are now insisting on their workers being back in the office.
While enshrining days of home working in law will get us the best of both worlds
We are at a turning point. We should not miss this opportunity to gain from our experience working remotely while regaining the benefits of collaborating and interacting in the same physical workspace. The current thinking of governments around regulating the post-pandemic world of work is a chance to re-establish a sense of balance between remote and office work.
Right now, many organizations are considering switching back to office work, five days a week, because of the adverse consequences they had to suffer when having everybody remote for a year and a half. They are thus ready to leave behind the fruits of the experiment we went through since March 2020 and the hard-won knowledge of working remotely.
We know that remote work has benefits, but it needs to be bounded. Balancing remote and office work will help get the best of both worlds – the flexibility, comfort, and focus of working from home; and the social connections, creative collaboration, and cultural benefits we get from the office. Requiring firms to accommodate and organize themselves to offer 2 to 3 days of remote work to most, if not all of their employees is the way forward. They would need to think deeply to make their hybrid approach work. And such a regulation-driven approach would also contribute to rebalancing economic activities between business districts and residential neighborhoods.
Governments currently have the mandate and the credibility to enshrine in law the advantage of working from home for part of the week. It will save firms from short-term thinking and the obsession of the office as we used to know it. Both remote and office work are complementary: requiring a balance will help organizations and workers better identify their respective purpose and maximize the opportunities offered by both modes. Importantly, it will foster a positive work climate at the national level, making economies that will take that step more competitive and more attractive.