Remote work or back to the office: Why the biggest challenges are still ahead
It’s still far too early to understand the impact on our working lives of the events of the last couple of years.
In the early months of the pandemic, Microsoft was talking about two years of digital transformation in just two months, as many people switched to remote working and companies scrambled to rethink business models for a profoundly changed world.
Two years later and digital transformation has continued apace. That’s forced change on organisations that might otherwise have seen no reason to alter their working practices for years to come.
The most obvious example of the change is the switch to remote working which has now — for many knowledge workers at least — become at least a part of their everyday working life.
Giving workers more flexibility about where and when they work has improved their work-life balance. It has proved to many managers that teams can be just as efficient working remotely as they are in the office.
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That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges: there are, and they are becoming increasingly clear.
Staff working remotely don’t always feel as connected to corporate culture as their office-based colleagues. They worry that they will miss out on opportunities that office denizens can snap up because they are sitting next to the boss, or that they will forego the everyday serendipities that happen in a shared workspace. Newer entrants to the workforce worry about access to mentoring for similar reasons.
And while everyone seems to be more efficient working from home, they may also be less fruitful when it comes to new ideas.
This doesn’t mean that everyone wants to be back in the office – they’re just aware of the issues that remote working creates.
These issues can be resolved, but only if they are acknowledged.
Unfortunately, many organisations are still operating as if remote working is a temporary condition, to be replaced sooner or later by a full-time return to the office.
And many managers are muddling on without being able to address the mounting problems.
That’s a serious failure.
Managers should acknowledge that remote working is now a standard part of employment for many, and has been a core driver of the digital transformation that has taken place over the last two years.
Assuming — or hoping — that remote working will be rolled back is about as sensible as expecting that other digital transformation steps taken in the last two years will be reversed too.
In fact, they are linked: flexibility about the working day has supported and enabled flexibility around business models.
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There’s some suggestion that as the economic outlook deteriorates, and as the bargaining power of staff declines, managers will finally be able to force staff to return to the office.
Such an attitude is simply likely to antagonise workers, and even in tough economic times the best people – especially in tech – are still going to have plenty of other options. And as remote working helps to build momentum behind new ideas like four-day working weeks, it’s unlikely that the debate over who works where, and when, is going to be resolved soon.
Managers should stop pretending that remote working is going to go away. Instead, they should look at the downsides and figure out how to deal with them.
That’s going to be a big challenge, but pretending that remote work is going to go away is really not an option.
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