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Back to the office we go?

The debate over returning to the office rumbles on (and on). I find a lot of it really frustrating, because it focuses so much on the “how” rather than the “why”.

Why do some people want to return to the office and others don’t? If we understand that then we can start to have much more useful and productive conversations about how to facilitate a working environment that works for everyone.

There’s a perceived divide between older/more senior staff who want everyone back working face to face and younger/more junior staff who prefer the flexibility of working from home.

To me, this is a false dichotomy, and a very simplistic way of thinking through the arguments either way.

From the conversations I’ve had, the observations I’ve made, and the arguments I’ve heard, the work from home / work from office divide is down to five factors – two connected to work and three connected to practicalities.

The work you do

If your role is mainly focused on working alone delivering things, then doing this in a quiet environment away from the distractions of the office is probably the best way for you to be productive. However, if you spend most of your time in meetings, then back-to-back Teams calls are exhausting and can leave you feeling like you are getting nothing done.

As a sweeping generalisation, the more senior you get, the more your role involves other people – managing your own team, collaborating with your peers and influencing your boss. You have more conversations that are difficult, and these are easier in person. I believe this is often at the heart of why many leaders want people back in the office – for them it really is a much more productive and enjoyable way to work.

How you build relationships online

Effective working relationships are essential to both performance and morale. So for hybrid to work, we need to make sure we are building remote connections with our co-workers. However, there seems to be a challenge here in that there are different approaches and expectations to how relationships work online.

The longer you’ve worked in an office environment, the more ingrained the old ways of working are. As creatures of habit, we find it hard to find new ways of solving the common problems. It’s frustrating not to just walk over to someone’s desk and chat to them about what you need. As a friend of mine commented: “I don’t want to watch a 10 minute video on how to file my expenses - I just want someone to show me!”

I tend to see people simply trying to translate their old ways online – a check in via Teams rather than an office stand up, a phone call rather than popping in to a meeting room. This seems to work for people who are also translating the old ways, but feels clunky to those embracing the new.

At the other end of the scale, if you are a young millennial or Gen Z (or simply a boomer who loves technology) and you have grown up building and nurturing relationships online, maybe that feels a lot more natural to you. A group chat feels like a sensible way to share personal information, and an unexpected phone call is panic-inducing. In that case, the office can seem superfluous.

Your working environment

If you live in a flatshare or somewhere too small to have a dedicated workspace then working at home is a lot less pleasant than if you have a shepherd’s hut at the end of your large garden in the countryside.

At the same time, if you have less disposable income (as most people do these days) the thought of spending huge amounts on long and depressing commutes is infuriating.

And the office environment matters too. Are you asking people to come into a tired, outdated space that’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter? Are you asking them to come into an office where they can’t get a desk, or that is empty and silent most days? If the office environment isn’t appealing, then why would you want to bother?

Caring commitments

For those of us with children, working from home has been a revelation. No more desperate dashes back from the office to avoid being late for pick up. No more dropping them off at Breakfast Club at 8am.

Similarly, for those with other caring commitments the flexibility of home working is invaluable, whether that’s visiting an elderly relative or taking the dog for a walk at lunchtime. Asking people to unpick arrangements they’ve come to rely on is stressful, and often expensive too.

Health needs

We mustn’t overlook the benefits of home working to those with disabilities and medical conditions. For many, it’s only since the pandemic that their employers have embraced remote working, which allows them to manage their environment in a way that works for them. Whether that’s a set-up that is comfortable, the ability to take regular breaks, or being able to use online tools, it would be unfair to remove this once it has been offered.

Being open to homeworking expands the pool of people who are able to work for you, and more talent and diversity is never a bad thing.

It’s these factors that should be shaping constructive conversations about what works for individuals and organisations. Dividing the workforce into the young and the old, the senior and the junior, the ‘us’ and the ‘them’, isn’t a useful way to discuss any of this.

My view is that hybrid can offer the best of both, but that there needs to be intentional thinking about how it’s managed. Which means setting clear expectations, having shared responsibilities, and supporting people to develop the skills and resources to do it well. I’ll focus on this more in my next blog.

Want to hear more about my approach to making hybrid work? Subscribe to my newsletter, The Art of Collaboration, to receive all posts direct to your inbox.

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