The Balance Between Office and Remote Work

I didn’t think I’d be writing about this topic again anytime soon. I wrote a post on why companies needed to allow their people some flexibility when it comes to returning to the office. I also wrote a post on why people needed to return to the office. 

It was kind of a point / counterpoint couple of posts. I covered both sides of the issue and I was done. Or so I thought.

Except I received a ton of feedback in the form of emails, phone calls and even some hallway conversations. I’ve learned a bunch. One thing I’ve learned is that there are more than two sides to this issue. In fact, it’s not an overstatement to say that if a company has 500 employees there very well could be 500 sides to the issue. 

That makes it a wee bit complicated for companies. But as I wrote in my first post, companies need to figure it out anyway.  Especially if they hope to remain competitive when it comes to recruiting new employees. Going back “to the way it was” will not work anymore.

There is no doubt that at least some of the hesitancy to allow a flexible work schedule has to do with a misguided effort to “control” their people. Too many companies don’t yet understand how to implement the practice of “remote accountability.” That has caused problems during the pandemic. 

To assume that an organization’s leadership team could suddenly convert to remote leadership with no specific training in those skills, which are distinctly different than “in office” leadership, was a mistake often made during the core pandemic times.

Some employees clearly took advantage of the opportunity to work from home to slack off and they failed to earn their pay. They basically stole from their employers week after week. How frustrating do you think that would be for a company’s leadership team? 

That, as much as anything else, is driving companies to try and regain what they believe is control over their employees. Which is unfortunate for the people who really figured out remote work, often without a ton of support from their leaders. 

But I must say on balance right now if I had to pick a side I’d be on the side of the companies. Organizations big and small have made a much better case on why they need people in the office.

Companies are making compelling cases around the power of collaboration. Around productivity and teamwork. Companies are talking about coming together again to achieve strategic initiatives and growth goals. Their “talking points” are grounded in logic.

People have some compelling cases too. Child care issues in the short-term is a very legitimate concern. Perhaps some near term health issue would be another one. But most of the individual concerns seem to be built around the issue of convenience. Their “talking points” are sort of floating in emotion. 

I’m dumbfounded by the number of people who have told me that they had “made other plans” for the summer. Those plans didn’t include returning to the office. I’m trying not to but I just can’t stop myself from thinking those other plans might also have included doing as little work as possible. 

That by the way is something a leader trained in the skills of remote accountability could easily spot and quickly correct. Leaders need to understand that if the only place their people can be held accountable is in the office there are two possibilities. Either they aren’t leading or they have the wrong type of person in their organization.

I continue to believe the better organizations will find a way to strike a balance between full time office work and some level of work-from-home flexibility. I continue to believe the better employees will be accepting of that balance. 

As I wrote in my first post on this subject, the work from home genie is out of the bottle and no company is going to successfully force it back inside. Balance must be found. If your company made it possible for you to work from home during the pandemic then consider yourself very fortunate. There were millions of people who didn’t have that option and many of them lost their jobs completely. 

If you’re an employee who has an expectation that working from home full time will last forever then I’m sorry to tell you that except in rare cases you have some very unrealistic expectations. 

I’m as big a believer in work-life balance as you’ll find. But I also expect that sometimes work won’t be as convenient as I’d like it to be. I think that’s a much more realistic expectation. That could also be why it’s called work. 🙂

Why You Need to Return to the Office

So…my last post was focused on why companies that think returning all employees to the office all the time is a good idea. To sum it up…they are wrong, all the time.

But the post also included a comment that those companies needed to find a balance between returning employees to the office full time and allowing some level, maybe a big level, of work from home flexibility. 

If you liked that post, as many of you did (Thank You) then you likely won’t like this one quite so much. Cause this one is about getting your rear in gear and returning to the office. 

I don’t take back one word of my last post but that “balance” comment applies to employees as much as employers. 

Even if your employer allows full time remote work you would be silly to accept it. LOTS of good things happen in an office environment and they happen ONLY in an office environment. 

You’ll learn more in a week of being in the office then you can learn in 3 months of video calls. Those hallway conversations are literally priceless when it comes to learning. I think I’ve used every video platform ever invented over the last 15 months and I’ve yet to find a hallway in any of them.

Working entirely remotely will hamper your career development. You need to be noticed in ways you never will be on a Zoom call. You need the opportunity for even a brief interaction with people high up in your organization who may never see you on a video call. 

It’s tough to “pop-in” to someone’s office on TEAMS. It’s really hard for someone else to stop by your cube for a quick insight on WebEx. Short spontaneous in-person conversations can change a career. They can change your life. 

Those kinds of conversations virtually (pun intended) stopped over the last 15 months. That’s a huge casualty of remote work. 

Now many of you are saying to yourself that you’ve been every bit as productive working from home as you’ve ever been while working in the office. For some of you that’s true but I’d remind you that building your reputation and advancing your career requires more than being productive. 

For those of you who have convinced yourself that you “haven’t missed a beat” in 15 months of working from home I’d remind you that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. You have to be honest with yourself. 

You, as it is with your employer, need to find a balance between working from home exclusively and investing some time in an office environment. I’m pretty sure that if it’s possible to work from the office exclusively and possible to work from home exclusively then it’s also possible to split time between the two. 

Companies that want to succeed in the future will understand that. People who want to excel in their jobs and advance their careers will understand that too.

The Remote Work Genie is Out of the Bottle

At last! Finally people are returning to their places of work. Office buildings are coming alive with the sounds of collaboration and spontaneous conversations. It’s an awesome sign that at least in parts of the world “things” are returning to normal.

“Normal” however is a relative term. It would be a terrible waste of an unprecedented time of learning if everything went back to exactly the way it was before turmoil overtook almost every business.

But some companies seem determined to return as close to pre-pandemic working conditions as possible.

It won’t be possible!

It won’t be possible because their employees won’t allow it. There will be a mighty battle for control within organizations that try to return completely to the way things were in the “before times.” Make no mistake about it, organizations that insist on having all employees in the office full time, all the time feel that is the only way they can control their people.

The truth is Authentic Leaders need neither compliance or control because they have the commitment of their people.

Employee survey after employee survey shows those organizations will be fighting a losing battle. Literally losing. Losing people by the droves. When you average out some of the bigger surveys you discover that 39% of an organization’s employees say they will consider quitting rather than returning to the office full time. Companies that have been among the first to attempt returning their people back to full time office work are discovering that half of that 39% are doing more than considering, they are in fact quitting.

If your organization is considering returning your workforce to full time office work there are a few things you may want to consider.

First, you have no control over who returns and who quits. You will lose some very talented people. The least engaged and least productive people are in fact the most likely to stay. You will negatively impact the productivity of your organization…all in the name of “control.”

One of the greatest resources a company has when recruiting new employees is it’s current employees. They can be constant “ambassadors” for your organization. Or not. Which one do you think is the more likely case if you’ve forced them to return to old, in many cases less productive ways? All in the name of control.

As you lose employees you will likely want to replace them. Good luck with that. Some surveys show over 80% of Millennial and Gen Z employees would not even accept an interview with a company that doesn’t offer flexible remote work options. You will struggle mightily to hire new employees…all in the name of control.

There are some people who, for a variety of reasons, cannot work remotely. There are some people who simply should not work remotely. But over the last 15 months most office employees have proven that they can. Their expectation is that they will be allowed to continue that at least part time.

The remote work genie is out of the bottle and no one is going to get it all the way back in.

There is no doubt about the power of collaboration and spontaneous hallway conversations. Face-to-face meetings allow people to connect and communicate in a way that Zoom and Teams never will. Every organization needs people back in the office at least sometimes.

They also need to find the balance that allows a level of flexibility for their people.

Nothing will go back to exactly the way it was before the pandemic. It won’t because it can’t. Organizations that learn to adapt to that reality will have a huge competitive advantage when recruiting new employees. They will also be far more likely to retain the talented ones they already have.