As WFH mutates to RTO, difficult questions are updated with trickier answers

What sounded like a videoconferencing campaign promise from Marketing 101 was of course, the global pandemic from hell and the call to work from home. Back in 2020, the benefits of the remote working revolution were the only encouraging consolation when COVID hit the world of business square in the margins. Companies rallied round to see what could feasibly be done remotely, securely and effectively. Workers did their best, from those with spare rooms and gigabit connections, to those with cramped living conditions, strained relationships, inadequate internet/equipment/childcare. To what end, and what now?

No tiresome commute, reduced overheads, greater job satisfaction, more freedom, higher productivity and much more besides.”

Running on two legs

Kids and cats crawling past the lens and into Teams meetings. Juggling a laptop in one hand, coffee in the other, struggling to find space in a crowded house to set up a makeshift ‘office.’ Constant interruptions from domestic obligations and a full workload from a packed office agenda… sound familiar? The early days of adapting to remote working were a jungle of challenge and change. But we got used to it, and over time many even grew to prefer it. So much so in fact that there are those now actively resisting calls to return to the ‘traditional’ model of work, that suddenly-old-fashioned idea where work was firmly attached to a workplace.

Pretend to work somewhere else” was one CEO’s dismissive response when asked about his decision to withdraw his staff’s work-from-home (WFH) ‘privileges.’ Other leaders are less blunt than Elon Musk of course—at least in public—but how are they handling this hot-button topic?

Social bonding and effective communication

We’re all human, which means we’re social animals built for peer bonding through communication and touch. Our non-verbal cues and gestures supposedly carry a hefty 70% of the message to our fellows, which not even the most hi-res Teams meeting can faithfully convey. In an office space, it’s too easy to forget the non-verbal, the handshakes and the meet-ups, lunches and spontaneous chats that happen when humans gather together, buzzing from the giddy bonding hormone oxytocin. But they play an important role in our ability to work together effectively.

Playing the ‘wellness’ card

Many companies flew the employee wellness flag when the pandemic erupted, citing their allegiance to ethical and HR considerations in ‘allowing’ people to follow national guidelines, staying away from shared spaces and setting up shop at home. That same ‘wellness’ is now cited by straight-faced employees “reluctant to put themselves or others at risk,” insisting that they serve the business from home or trying to negotiate employers into a hybrid 3-day week instead.

A Harvard Business Review survey1 in 2021 found that 32% of employees didn’t want to return to the office, while 21% didn’t want to spend another day working from home. The same researchers found that those who returned to work were more likely to be promoted, with home-based employees passed over because they were ‘out of touch with the office.’

What’s best for the business may not feel great for employees, especially after two chaotic years of blurred or downright compromised work/life balance

Running on two legs

Team kitchen

Some companies can of course manage a remote workforce smoothly, saving on office costs (and in some cases even shutting or selling office space entirely). If you’re a small business with a tight-knit team, you may rely on regular face-to-face catch-ups and strategy meetings. If you’re a decentralised multinational with intercontinental satellite offices, your managers may be greeted with the complaint, “Why should I come to the office when half my day is already spent on Teams? I might as well do it from my kitchen.” So, how can companies persuade their people to suit up and show up? With so many variables to consider, it’s little wonder there is no one-size solution.
For some high-profile companies, the return to office might never come. Airbnb has famously proclaimed a ‘live and work anywhere’ policy2, giving employees a new career autonomy that most of us can only dream of. While others, like Apple, have moved from the hybrid model to a more insistent 3-day office minimum. That insistence has already prompted the resignation of at least one high-profile leader, as Ian Goodfellow, Apple’s Director of Machine Learning, handed in his notice in May this year.

And the answer is….

Indeed, around the world, knowledge workers are deciding whether they even want to work for companies who insist they physically turn up for their job. It’s a risky game, with some employers now paying less for home-workers than their office counterparts, and some employees (like Ian Goodfellow) jumping ship for greener pastures. It seems like the age-old question “How much do you like your job” remains, updated with a caveat: “how easy would it be to find a better one?”


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