Some wise words from organisational psychologist, Adam Grant, and one of my heroes.

We’ve been experimenting with our teams working away from the office to some extent for over 3 years now… Yet many organisations still haven’t figured out the working model that they’re going to adopt going forward – is it hybrid, fully remote or in the office full-time?

Perhaps it’s ok that a decision hasn’t been made given it might be something still being trialled… And rightly so, because this is something that requires testing, reviewing and adjusting to ensure its meeting the needs of all involved.

Based on what we know so far about flexible work, there seems to be many benefits for workers and organisations overall. There are some downsides of course, but largely people have said that when they spend some time working away from the office, they are more productive, more satisfied and committed to their jobs, and have greater wellbeing. So, I for one, thought that it was here to stay.

It’s therefore a little confusing when we have seen several organisations recently demand an end to working from home. And the question I have is, why?

Following the difficult few years we’ve had, the hope was that we would take forward what we learnt from the pandemic and aspire to make our futures better. 

A return to the office full-time seems like a step backward. And it’s a decision that might be costly for organisations over the long term particularly for the groups looking to win ‘the war on talent’ and to get the best out of their people.

So why the push back to the office?

The reasons will differ across the leaders who have made this decision. 

Perhaps some want their workplaces to go back to the way things were prior to the pandemic… Back to “normal”. Even though “normal” wasn’t working all that well for us… Maybe they see remote work as having a negative impact on the culture they’re trying to create. Others may have seen a dip in their productivity and performance, which they equate with the increased flexibility their workers have, as opposed to say the difficult market conditions we find ourselves in… Or maybe it comes down to the lack of trust that some leaders have for their teams to do their jobs outside of the office. They don’t monitor performance according to outcomes achieved but rather time at their desk. Perhaps it has something to do with the cost of their rent. Or maybe there is no reason at all…

Yet without rationale, trying to get to people to buy into a change will be extremely difficult. Particularly when many workers have shown over the last few years that the office isn’t the only place to get work done. Perhaps this is why some leaders have had to use the old stick approach, and demand a return to the office, in an attempt to drive that behaviour. So the workers are pressured to attend the office rather than choosing to be there. 

Will there be a fallout from this approach?

There’s huge demand from workers to have flexibility around when, where and how they work. We see this in the results of pretty much every survey that asks the question. 

According to SEEK, “work from home” was the number one search term over the past 12 months by job seekers. And jobs are deemed less desirable when they don’t have any flexibility. 

What’s more, a Unispace study shows almost half of firms with mandated returns are struggling to recruit and almost a third have experienced higher than normal attrition. So not only are these groups finding it hard to attract talent but they’re losing their quality workers too.

Taking flexibility away from your people means you are no longer meeting one of their psychological needs being autonomy. So rather than increasing performance and productivity by mandating a return to the office, these leaders might find that this decision does exactly the opposite.

Yet autonomy isn’t just about working away from the office. Because this isn’t feasible for non-office roles like retail or hospitality.

How else can autonomy be achieved?

Autonomy can mean giving your workers freedom to make decisions, manage their tasks, or take full ownership of their work responsibilities. Or it can be a choice over their working days, start and end times, when they break, who they work with, or the type of work they do.

When you give your employees autonomy, they’re more motivated and productive, they perform better and have increased wellbeing. They tend to be more satisfied with their jobs also, so they’re less likely to leave.

So if you can’t or won’t offer your workers the ability to work anywhere, you need to consider how they can still have autonomy in their role.

When organisations offer flexibility and autonomy to their employees, this will be beneficial and perhaps their competitive advantage. 

What’s the impact on culture?

Some leaders believe that their culture is damaged when they have teams working in a hybrid or fully remote environment. But there’s potentially more damage to be done when you pressure your workers to return to the office.

Like Culture Expert, Shane Hatton mentions in this article, I believe that when there is no collective buy-in for the return to the office decision, “you end up with compliance rather than a culture”. 

Managing this change may also require constant supervision. According to Hatton, this might mean “managers start checking in on their employers more often, breeding a culture of micromanagement or surveillance, which is damaging to trust and engagement levels.”

There are of course collaboration and learning benefits when workers are physically together in a working environment. But equally I’d argue that this can be achieved with the right platforms when teams are remote.

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the purpose of our offices. As Hatton has suggested, it might be where we do more of the “non-work”. All the fun stuff that’s focused on socialising and building strong connections with peers!

So what’s the right working model?

Is it 40+ hours per week in the office? The 4 day working week? The work anywhere model but with set times? Or working anywhere anytime?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. And it depends on a number of different factors. Organisations need to take into account the type of role, the tasks and responsibilities of the job, and the industry they’re in etc. And of course, you’ll always have some groups that can’t work remotely or those that prefer to work from an office!

I consider hybrid as best-practice – people have the flexibility to work from anywhere yet gain the benefits from some time in the office too like learning, coaching, collaboration and social interaction. Research also suggests that we reach peak engagement and burnout is lowest when we spend 40-60% of time working remotely (Gallup, 2020). So, hybrid has my vote and seems to be the more agreeable option!

Ultimately however, it’s up to the leaders to determine the best model for their business and workers. But this decision should be made with input from their people on what they need to deliver their best work. It would be very wrong to assume or tell without consultation because in some ways, you’re defining what the lives of your workers will look life going forward. When they’re included, people will feel less anxious about what’s to come and they’re more likely to be more engaged and satisfied with the outcome.

And once the decision is made, it needs to be planned and managed well so it has the best chance of success. This includes careful planning, communication, guidelines on expectations, role modelling, training and real tracking of outcomes (like productivity, engagement, performance and wellbeing) so changes can be made if needed.

The organisations that are adaptive and responsive to their employees’ needs will be more likely to thrive in our ever-evolving environment!