On 'Back to the Office'
Many executives want their workers to return to the office. Of course,they do; they have more control over workers' daily schedules, their productivity and can more easily monitor exactly the work that they are getting done. Additionally, many of the biggest corporations in the world have considerable contractual obligations to pay rents for enormous corporate campuses or simply pay for the upkeep of the campuses they own.
I have worked from home almost my entire career, starting at about 18. I did work from the office in my high school internship and subsequent job as a production technician and IT support guy. I have experienced what it's like to work in a close-knit office culture as well as a remote office experience over the last 14+ years, so I speak from experience when I say that many employers simply don't understand their employees. If they did, they would let them work from home if they wanted to. After all, didn't employers spend the last 20-or-so years cutting benefits at work that make coming to work beneficial?
I will be the first employee to agree that you build better relationships with coworkers you've met in person and worked with. However, this is not an impossible task to do as a remote employee either. I have many friends I still keep today that I made while working remotely as early as 2008. Admittedly, I did feel like I was somewhat of an odd-man-out in some scenarios because I was treated as a remote contractor in that role. Still, it could have easily been remedied by treating me like any other employee, which many companies do today. On the other side of that coin, I also took a job at Best Buy for a year as a teenager to see what it was like to work in retail and to get some 'in-office' job experience interacting with people and understanding how larger corporations worked since I mostly worked from home. I craved in-person interaction at that time. Some of those friendships I made over a decade ago working there last through today, which tells you that building relationships with people absolutely works in both scenarios, but that I completely understand why people might want to return to work even without work mandates.
The problem with many executives and business owners wanting employees to return to the office is that many do not understand their employees' motivations for working at their company. My parents were both small business owners, and I completely understand the entrepreneurial spirit of many business owners wanting their employees to have their skin in the game. Still, many business owners forget that they don't pay their employees enough to care about the business's overall success or profitability. Ultimately, loyalty to a corporation or a business owner has been completely eroded by the companies themselves; with the number of businesses that laid off their employees during the pandemic without any regard to their situations, many employees reconsidered their jobs. One of the considerations was that for some employees, taking a paycheck and living their lives as they see fit is far more preferable to working a 9-5 in an office and begging and hoping for career advancement that never ends up coming anyways, or at least a much slower pace than was promised or expected.
Many people discovered the great benefits of working from home and not having to 'commute' to work and sit in traffic both ways. Theoretically, it also translated to employees getting more sleep, even though for people like me, it did not. In fact, during the pandemic, for me at least, I got considerably less sleep since companies prioritized the Eastern Time Zone instead of Pacific, which meant invites to 6 and 7 am briefings and conference calls, which are brutal for someone that's not a morning person. For years, working remotely for me generally meant no meetings before 9 am, which is ideal since I discovered after flunking a few 8 am classes in college that my brain does not function at full capacity until 9 am.
So, here we stand with experts claiming that working from home is ruining people's careers and companies' unit cohesion. I believe it is a net benefit. Companies should consider that some of their best employees have zero interest in returning to the office ever again. Employees should also consider that proximity to managers and executives is far more likely to benefit one's career ambitions, especially when playing office politics. I believe that the economics of working from home and working in the office will eventually settle themselves out in a way that benefits both workers and employers. We will live in a hybrid model moving forward, with some companies leaning heavily into remote while others leaning more heavily into the office. Like many things, it is a spectrum, and completely abandoning the office is foolish, as is completely abolishing work from home.
This entire discussion also ignores that companies open to remote work also open themselves to a considerably larger pool of potential employees. I believe companies should be working harder to encourage their employees to return to the office, either by having strong COVID protocols or waiting until the pandemic has subsided. Who knows when that'll be? Everyone's expectations have been shattered every time someone has attempted to predict the end. Companies should have understood during the beginning of the pandemic that their employees are the most valuable asset that they have. Still, they treated them as a liability for years, and many continue to do the same today. Right now, HR departments and IT departments are going to be the critical places that will help to keep employees engaged until employees and companies are ready for employees to return to the office. Of course, every COVID wave pushes many of those return dates back. Still, ultimately I believe that many companies will eventually return to the office in some capacity, while others may never go back. We're not out of the woods yet, but I believe that companies should continue to listen to employees and find ways to make working from the office worthwhile, especially when considering some employees' commutes.
Something else to consider, especially in the United States is that remote work creates a far more competitive labor market than we had before the pandemic. Because the United States doesn't have universal healthcare like most other countries, health insurance is often tied to one's employer and employment status. A competitive labor market is one where employees are valued closer to their true value to corporations and have more bargaining power, this also benefits employers because they have access to a bigger pool of employees with better access to those employees. Allowing remote work, especially at the beginning of a job, allows an employer to hire an employee from virtually anywhere and gives that employee the flexibility of finding a new job without ever having to leave the comfort of their home. Sure, as things get closer to normal during the pandemic, in-person interviews are happening much more often. However, those also happen later in the process when a candidate is much closer to landing the job and getting an official offer.
I believe remote work will be essential to the future workplace, but it won't be for everyone and won't be all the time. A measured approach to remote work and working from the office with constant communication with employees will ultimately be the best approach, especially as more companies start to think about how they weather a recession while paying for office space that currently sits mostly underutilized.