Once again, the ‘return to office’ voice is loud, with those who continue to work from home being openly derided and blamed for all manner of workplace ills.
When everyone was forced to work from home during the pandemic, we were all in it together. For a time, the stigma associated with flexible working decreased, partly I believe because the bosses were doing it too. But now, the backlash is very much underway.
What’s going on, beneath the headlines, the flexible working micro-aggressions, and even the crass notes sent by politicians? I believe that there are several, often inter-related, issues at play.
The office works well for some people. Generally, these are the people at the top of organisations and who fulfil the ideal worker stereotype. Often, these are also white men. Because the office and all it entails worked for them, they are unable to see, or perhaps do not wish to see, that other employees may want or need to work differently, face different struggles to them, and do not have the privileges that organisational power brings along with it. So why can’t everyone just work in the office?
One of the big challenges facing flexible working adoption is the inability of some people (often managers) to separate how they prefer to work with how other people can / should work. If they prefer the office, feel more productive there, enjoy the social connection and experience few challenges with the commute, the distractions and so on, they can’t appreciate that this does not work for everyone. Confirmation bias kicks in, and they see only the evidence for their preferred working style, rejecting the needs and wants of others.
To some leaders and managers, the office is linked to status and power. Consider how, as employees rise through the organisation, this is often reflected in their physical workspaces. The corner office with the great view signals a certain kind of significance. Giving this up to work remotely, or having fewer people around to witness their standing or rank, is a challenge to their importance and sense of self.
Fear of change. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of loss of control. Fear about (in a manager context) whether they can make the personal change that they need to make, learn the new skills, adapt. So much better to demand the return to the former status quo.
Trust (or lack of)
Even after two years or so of increased remote work, even in the face of the evidence that says that most people believe themselves to be at least, if not more, productive when working from home as they are in the office, too many people just cannot bring themselves to trust the people that they work with, or that work for them. We have a failure of trust in far too many organisations. Generally, this says more about the individual who cannot trust than those that work for them – but this matters little when they hold the power to decide.
The lazy worker stereotype
Flexible working has been consistently found to be stigmatised, linked to unfounded assumptions such as those that work flexibly are less committed or motivated. Before the pandemic, the standard objection to a work from home request was ‘how will I know that they are working’. Well, we managed okay during the pandemic, but this stereotype is a particularly deep-seated one, engrained into many people’s viewpoints, latterly with the help of some of the media (often those with a particular lack of impartiality). There is no evidence to support this myth. Not before the pandemic, during it, or since. Perhaps it is time to think about exactly who is served by perpetuating it.
The money on offices and all that lies within them has been spent – or costs are committed into the future with long leases. So we want people to use it, regardless.
Hard wired beliefs
We have certain beliefs about the office, many of which are routinely accepted, even without evidence. For example, the office is good for new starters to help them learn, the office is better for relationships, collaboration, organisational culture, creativity. These are things that we often hear, but rarely challenge. Some of these things might be partly true. Others are merely convenient tropes, helpful to those with a certain, office is best, drum to bang. Unfortunately many of these beliefs lack evidence, and some of them are excuses for poor practice. For example, we can put a new employee next to someone and let them pick stuff up in the office, or we can create a meaningful induction and learning plan that will support people wherever and however they work.
Of all the challenges to working from home acceptance, this is the one that I believe lies at the heart of the problem. It sits beneath many of the other issues discussed here. If you can only manage your knowledge workers, motivate them, or get them to be productive, through direct supervision, control or the shadow of your presence, you are not a good manager. No debate.
As we see the continued headlines about the rise of hybrid work and positive research outcomes, we should not be complacent. The case for flexible working is not made. The evidence will never convince some people. The desire for organisations to control their workers remains.
As it ever did.