Work and Workplace

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Thanks to the global response to the COVID 19 pandemic; the issue of what constitutes work and workplace now dominates the agenda for employers. Financial health, as well as physical health, has never been more important. 

The prolonged period of enforced home working has lead to a radical reshaping of what defines the workplace and it is not surprising that almost all employers are wrestling with the question of what work practices they can and should expect as lockdown finally comes to an end.

As a recent HBR podcast entitled ‘Rethinking our relationship with work’ described it, “this is a big reset moment for all of us.”

The podcast, an interview with Emily Esfahani Smith, author of “The Power of Meaning, delves into how we can define - or redefine - our sense of purpose as it relates to work, and Smith explains how to do that wherever we are in our career.

For many, this ‘big reset’ and renewed sense of purpose has lead to the firm conviction that travelling to an office five days a week is an outdated concept and a way of life that is both costly and damaging to mental health.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the HR departments worldwide are struggling to convince a distributed workforce to come back into the office. 

Nor is it a surprise that terminations abound as employees who have relocated to other cities or even other countries during lockdown refuse to return to their initial place of work.

The issue of what constitutes ‘the workplace’ is highly subjective, equally divisive, and unlikely to be resolved in the near future making it impossible for employers to rebuild the corporate culture in a homogeneous manner.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) assessed the pitfalls for managers when determining their Return to Office (RTO) policies post-lockdown. Its conclusion was that “If managers ignore some of the lessons remote work has taught us, empty offices may remain the norm—but this time it will be because resentful employees have moved on to other companies that better serve their new needs.”

The workforce is now equally divided between those who are keen to return to office life, those who favour a mixture of both, and those who never want (or expect) to return to the office again. These convictions are deeply held and appear irreconcilable.

Obliging settled homeworkers, some of whom may have relocated during lockdown, to return to commuting is likely to provoke an immediate, hostile response. And workers who opt to return to the office full-time may begin to resent or disregard colleagues who only ever attend virtually.

Not surprisingly, most enterprise-size companies (including Chevron, Facebook, McDonald's and even JP Morgan) have had to delay their plan to return to the office until later this year, or even into 2022.

Underpinning these debates are issues of personal responsibility, management authority, and the ideal ‘span of control’ that companies establish between managers and their teams. 

Despite the public focus on the ‘softer’ aspects of workplace culture and the stated concerns of employers for employees’ wellbeing, the workplace is not a social institution nor a charity. It is constituted around lines of authority and control that allow them to operate successfully on an ongoing basis. 

Decades of research and scholarship on the science of management, starting with Frederick Taylor’s stopwatch analyses into worker productivity, have scrutinised the influence of environmental factors on productivity, efficiency, and output in the workplace.

When Taylor’s research was carried out, the concept of ‘remote working’ did not exist. However, the advent of networked communications, recently combined with government-mandated lockdowns, has served to foster a contrasting question: what exactly is ‘the workplace’ if work can be done anywhere?

Much of the debate centres around the extent to which the expectations of the younger generation, including graduates entering the workforce for this first time, will influence the outcome. 

The WSJ presupposes that, in order to recruit the brightest and best, organisations will need to accommodate a newly entrenched set of expectations that remote working is the norm and that commuting and office working are either optional or defunct.

Remote working has become a battle-line along which companies compete with each for up and coming talent. As soon as a firm announces its RTO (Return to Office) policy and the associated date, its competitors immediately counter with a ‘forever remote’ statement designed to lure away the disaffected who have moved away, never expecting to return.

The next year could herald the most intense period of employee turnover and migration yet seen within the enterprise sector in history.

The solution could well be the one currently being followed by companies such as Standard Chartered Bank which is to apply carrot instead of stick. This approach makes office working optional but concentrates on making the quality of the office experience so appealing that employees work there by choice rather than obligation.  

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