I’ve been writing for a while now about the fragility of flexible working progress, and the potential for a ‘great reversal’ of hybrid work. It’s been very clear for some time that many organisations were only tolerating remote work while it was a crisis driven necessity. The return to office voice is loud and proud.
There are very good reasons to go to a physical workplace and to work in-person, with other people. As we discovered during the pandemic however, we don’t need to do this every day. We know that work does not need to be an 8-hour day, a 5 day week, or as fixed and inflexible as it had been for decades. Patterns that were set in the factory system, hanging over to the present day. There is overwhelming evidence of the potential benefits of flexible work; unfortunately WFH/WFO has become a binary debate that is impervious to evidence. There are some organisations and some business leaders who just want people back in the office regardless. And here’s why.
They personally prefer it
Some leaders like to be in the office. Some leaders have personally benefited from this system. They lack the empathy to consider that other people might want or need something different. Or they don’t care to do so. It’s their way, or the P45 way.
They don’t trust you
It’s not personal. They don’t trust full stop. These are the micro-managers, taking a Theory X approach, assuming that given the opportunity any employee will do as little as possible. This is a long tradition dating back to the beginning of work itself. For them, management is seeing and everything else is a risk.
It is easier
Doing what we have always done and what we know well, is much easier than doing something new and difficult. Change requires thought, effort, attention. It makes demands of us. Something that some people do not wish to be bothered by.
They don’t have the skills
That new stuff mentioned above also demands new skills and a new approach for leadership. It is fundamentally different to managing exclusively in-person. How to communicate, collaborate, performance manage, build relationships and set objectives are all things that need to be done differently with a flexible or hybrid team. It won’t come naturally to everyone. Also, see above point.
They have biases
There are a whole load of cognitive biases at play. Confirmation bias – the tendency to prefer information that supports our existing views (the office is brilliant!!). Experience bias – the one that tells us our experience and our perception is the objective truth. Status quo bias – our tendency to prefer things to stay the same even if it’s not the best option. Proximity bias – preferring those with whom we are in closest proximity. We all have biases – when managing a remote or flexible team it falls to managers to be aware of the potential for bias and take steps to prevent them arising. This is difficult work. See above points.
They need to justify their position
When you have got the corner office, someone needs to witness it.
They believe the rhetoric
There is a strong set of pervading beliefs about flexible and remote work. From what I like to call the Homes Under the Hammer Fallacy (everyone will sit around watching daytime tv) to the ideas that people need to be an office for ‘the culture’, some managers simply believe that in-person work is essential. Or it’s convenient for them to believe so. See above points.
Here’s the thing. People who are opposed to remote and flexible work probably aren’t going to change their minds. It does not matter what evidence is found, what persuasive arguments are made. Those that have the loudest ‘return to office’ voice are often in the positions of most power. The progress on flexibility is far from guaranteed.