This article isn’t about the new normal, but rather about the new reality of work.
In March 2020, our work reality as a society turned upside down without warning, forcing most people to work from home full time. It was as if the world was coming to an end.
Fast forward over 30 months and we’ve gotten through the worst of it (somewhat, except that the feelings of insecurity and worry still loom)… So where do we go from here? Should we go back to the office and our “old” normal?
What should our work reality look like from now on? Lockdown made us question our relationship with work and the space it should take up in our lives. Suddenly, this balancing act between our personal and professional lives—mental health on one side and social contract on the other—has never felt so consequential.
The real question: “Why?”
On social media, in the press, and on TV news, the focus is on “how.” Should workers be required to return to the office? If so, how many days a week or month? Should everyone go in on the same days? What about work schedules?
Our colleague Thomas O’Neill, who also teaches industrial psychology at the University of Calgary, highlights the fundamental question: “Why?”
“There are two questions we need to ask about the workplace: 1) Why do employees prefer working at the office or from home? 2) Why do organizations insist that employees work in person rather than remotely if the second option is feasible? The answers to these two basic questions can be quite complex.”
“Why do employees prefer working at the office or from home?”
Surveys, case studies, popular opinion, and first-person reports in major newspapers and social media confirm that the main reason people want to go to the office isn’t to collaborate or sort out project details around the water cooler. It also has nothing to do with having access to better technology. They want to socialize. In fact, people prefer working from home for the flexibility it affords: being able to take their kids to daycare, throw in a load of laundry between meetings, have breakfast without rushing, avoid traffic bottlenecks and poor driving conditions, etc. At home, there is less pressure and most of us are pretty well-equipped technology-wise.
“Why do organizations insist that employees work in person rather than remotely if the second option is feasible?”
For performance? To pass on the organizational culture? There aren’t any conclusive studies on the topic. So why do some organizations insist that their employees return to the office full time or at least at a set frequency? Thomas O’Neill explains:
“As long as employees can do their work remotely, requiring people to come in to the office seems like a form of micromanagement reminiscent of Taylorism or a need for control that extinguishes the other person’s autonomy. But managers can also have good intentions by wanting to restore life in the office: team cohesion, group morale, collaborative meetings, etc.”
As soon as employee experience begins to suffer, the volatility of the workforce speaks for itself: with their backs to the wall, they head straight for the door:
“Before […], working in the office was what we thought of as normal.” But after what we’ve experienced over the past two years, we now know that there are other options.”
One thing is for sure, it’s not an either/or situation; the solution is nuanced, hybrid.
Justine Benoit (CHRA, MBA), one of our senior consultants, says that it’s important to always consider context when implementing hybrid work and embed strategies into the organizational culture.
- Operational context: Does the job require a physical presence (manual tasks, health care services, in-person meetings to discuss sensitive information, etc.)?
- Cultural specificity: Is the company culture well established in person (banking and insurance sectors) or remotely (companies with offices that are spread out geographically, consultation firms, and professional services)?
In such situations, hybrid work is possible, preferable, and encouraged (or not) based on the job category or the corporate culture. Imposing in-person work without justification may also be unacceptable from the employee’s perspective. Personal choice seems to be the best course of action.
Obviously, physical presence is warranted on occasion: onboarding a new employee, exit interviews, strategic planning meetings, etc. Events can also be planned to encourage employees to interact and socialize on a voluntary basis. In fact, some companies offer yoga classes, wine and cheese events, foosball or pool evenings, etc. Offices tend to fill up before or after events like these.
As long as the organization can pursue its operations, fulfill its mission, reach its objectives, and meet its obligations, there aren’t many benefits—for organizations and employees alike—to imposing in-person work. The opposite is also true.
Giving employees the option to choose where they work based on their personal needs and the variable requirements of their role shows respect for them, their autonomy, and their need to achieve work-life balance. By adopting employee-centric management practices, the organization shows maturity, which in turn has a positive and gratifying effect on employees. In light of the labour shortage and lack of quality skills, how could any organization pass up such a strategic advantage?
We were able to adapt to remote work during lockdown, can we now adapt to having a choice?
The new question: “Why not?”
These new realities reflect how far we’ve come in terms of how we see work, our relationship with it, and the world of the office. From a Darwinian perspective, the survival of many businesses depends on their ability to evolve.
But with hybrid work, one concern remains: unpredictability. In the professional world, unpredictability is synonymous with chaos (e.g., an employee goes in to the office to work alongside colleagues, but no one is there). In this situation, indicating in advance where you will be working, with the option to change your plans anytime, would be an interesting option.
Creating synergy, generating excitement, increasing opportunities to meet: how do you see your new reality moving forward?