Why going back to the office may be important

Jonathan Faurie
Founder Turnaround Talk

While it cannot be argued that the Covid-19 Pandemic has caused massive levels of disruption in the corporate world, employees have somewhat found their comfort zone in working from home. And bosses have been very accommodating of the fact that, while working from home, employees would naturally have to attended to private matters during working hours.

The reality of the situation is that the Pandemic would not last forever and countries would be looking to accelerate their economic recovery from the Pandemic. South Africa has been slow in this regard as our economy was fragile going into the Pandemic. In September, President Cyril Ramaphosa shifted South Africa’s Covid Response Level to adjusted level 2 and then adjusted level 1.  This means that there is more freedom to perform economic activities.

While there is a significant movement towards the continuation of remote work (which is driven by employees and junior management), there is a significant movement towards returning to the office (which is being driven by mid-level management and senior executives).

In the past, we have made the case for remote work. We now need to look at the other side of the debate. This will be based on a LinkedIn article as well as an article from entrepreneur.com.

Gaining momentum
The LinkedIn article points out that senior leaders are eager to get back into the office. People of colour, women and working parents are not feeling it.

That’s the key finding of a new survey by Future Forum, a group launched by Slack to assist companies as they reimagine work. More than two-thirds of all executives want to work in the office most or all of the time, while only 17% of remote employees feel the same way. And some 75% of executives say they want to work from the office three to five days a week, versus only 34% of employees.

“You are asking executives to overcome 30 years of learned experiences,” said Brian Elliott, Future Forum Executive Leader. “There is a little bit of being okay with being wrong and there is a little bit of an ego dimension there.”

The article adds that senior leaders mostly came up the ranks in an office environment, and many argue that is the most productive form of work, Elliott notes.

More collaboration takes place in the office
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The resistance
However, the research done for the LinkedIn article points out that not all executives are all about the office. Brian Long, the CEO of digital marketing company Attentive, says he prefers remote work. For him, it makes a more level playing field for all employees.

“The executive’s job has to change in a remote world. You can’t just go around the office and grab people and say ‘Come in, I want to do a meeting,’” he said. “From an output standpoint, people just get a lot more done remotely.”

The article adds that, Slack’s research — which is based on a survey of more than 10 000 knowledge workers in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK — suggests that the office environment simply doesn’t work for many underrepresented groups. And employees of colour, in particular, have expressed an increased sense of belonging while working remotely and have shared a stronger preference for flexible work than their white peers.

When Slack asked survey respondents if they agree with statements like, “I am treated fairly at work” or “management is supportive,” Black employees were 30% more likely to agree in August 2021 versus August 2020. And 85% of women currently working 100% remote want flexible or hybrid work, compared to 79% of men.

The article adds that these findings don’t surprise Tiffany Dufu, founder of women’s career coaching platform The Cru. She’s watched as women of colour report better work experiences since switching to remote.

“People advance in an organization because someone sees a past version of themselves in [another] person and invests in them,” she said. “The most radical solutions of advancement are for people in positions of power to reimagine the past version of themselves and [see] a person of colour in that role.”

With many companies facing a competitive hiring market, that reimagination is now critical for recruiting and retaining top talent, added Slack’s Elliott.

“People asking for flexibility are highly talented and they are going to be looking for organizations that give them a degree of flexibility,” he said.

The disadvantages of remote working
While employees have found a comfort zone when it comes to remote working, the entrepreneur.com article points out that there are some major disadvantages as well.

The article points out that, while statistics make remote working sound appealing, there are many ways that remote working has impaired companies and business professionals, which is why it is important to return to the office when it is safe to do so.

Decreased collaboration
The entrepreneur.com article adds that remote working has led to a 23% decrease in team collaboration, which means less teamwork and development on assigned projects.

This can be especially harmful to junior team members who are not able to work closely with the rest of their colleagues and learn the valuable skills they need to know to succeed and grow within their industry. Unlike office life, where you can approach others in person with questions, you’re limited to virtual meetings or Slack chats with remote working.

Decreased productivity
The article points out that while remote working sounds good because you can work whenever and wherever, many times when our minds wander.

Whether it’s checking emails, surfing the web for “research” purposes or doing other tasks that may not be the best use of your time, productivity can drop while working remotely compared to being in the office.

Economies need to grow in the wake of Covid-19
Photo By: Imani Williams via Pexels

Lack of inspiration
The article adds that , wen you’re surrounded by people all day, every day, there’s a lot of inspiration that comes from that environment. However, when everyone is working remotely, and you’re unable to see your colleagues or surroundings. It can be easy for employees’ creativity levels to diminish as they work without any outside influence.

Lack of work/life balance
The entrepreneur.com article points out that remote working can make it very easy to overwork yourself simply because you can’t tell when your day at work is finished.

With no one keeping track of that for you, many employees end up working past their regular hours without realizing that they should’ve stopped long before then. This creates a lack of work-life balance, increased stress and more burnout among employees.

Increased distractions
When employees work remotely, they tend to lose focus and get distracted more easily.

There are tons of tasks that can steal away attention, such as household chores or errands, that can decrease productivity while working from home. In an office environment, everyone can focus on the task at hand instead of being consumed with things that are not work-related.

Reduced relationships with co-workers
The article adds that remote working can also lead to a lack of relationships with co-workers, which is especially harmful to managers who do not get the opportunity to build up their leadership skills and create stronger bonds within their teams.

Relationships are hard to build over messaging and emails or through video chat.

The entrepreneur.com article points out that, even though remote working may sound like a good idea because you’re free to work from wherever, the lack of human connection can make employees feel isolated and alone.

This is especially true for those who do not have family or friends in their area that they can spend time with when not at work. In addition, being isolated makes it easier to lose focus and feel like there’s no reason to work because you’re unable to see the results of your hard work.

The role of BRPs
The root cause of distress is that many companies are struggling to adjust to the new paradigm when it comes to the disruption that has been caused by the Covid-19 Pandemic. There was already a movement towards remote work before the pandemic; however, the pushback by Business Owners and Senior Executives has enough to prevent the movement from gaining any serious momentum.

The Pandemic showed many companies that remote work is possible. But this is more of a case of horses for courses as some business models favour remote work more than others. BRPs need to be cognisant of this when advising clients.

There are other challenges. Since remote working can lead to overworking, distractions, lack of relationships with co-workers and isolation, employees need to go back into the office. Moving forward, remote working will always be available on a needs basis because although there are many benefits, in-office collaboration is essential too. This way, teams will have an opportunity to collaborate, learn new skills, develop themselves as leaders and create stronger intercompany bonds with their colleagues.

The major determinant of the movement back to the office is the mandatory vaccination debate, which is another sensitive discussion that still needs to be held in South Africa.