The Great Back-To-Office Confusion

The Great Back-To-Office Confusion

As employees forcefully push back Return-to-Office, the issue has opened a pandora’s box –raising more questions than answers about flexible and hybrid work models

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, recently announced employees can work from home forever. He calls the office an “anachronistic form” that is“from a pre-digital age.”  Apple’s director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, has departed in protest of his company’s return-to-work policy. Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently shared his views on why in-office work is better, saying “I don’t know how you build great management virtually”.

Meanwhile, about 50% of leaders say their company already or will require a return to in-person work full-time in the next year, according to Microsoft research that surveyed 31,102 people around the world. Return-to-Office has opened a pandora’s box and has raised more questions than answers about flexible work. There is an overwhelming push-back from employees over return-to-office commandments.

Office tourists

Recently, a global technology company started a return-to-office for 30% of its workforce, but only about 10% turned up. Even those were “office tourists” as those who turned up were mostly taking a break from two years of continuous work-from-anywhere or home, to catch up on colleagues for a chat, rather than any serious work.

Things have reached a point where employees would rather quit than return to the office permanently. A survey conducted by recruitment and staffing firm CIEL HR Services showed that at least 6 out of every 10 employees in India were ready to resign instead of returning to the office. Interestingly, almost the same number of respondents were ready to skip a higher-paid job that requires them to come to the office, according to the survey findings. Tata Steel had announced an ‘Agile Working Models’ policy during the pandemic. Now, the firm plans to continue with it.

Employees are quitting in droves

A blanket return-to-office mandate is one of the reasons why the information technology industry is witnessing unheard of attrition levels, breaching the 25% high water mark, with some companies even reporting that a third of their workforce have quit. From an average employee’s point of view, they have enjoyed a return-to-homes in their tier-2/3 cities while working from anywhere in the last two years. This has helped them save on rents, live a better life compared to their cramped paying guest accommodations in polluted metropolises, and take care of their parents. Their savings had increased, at the same time they could contribute to their family incomes. Now, they aren’t ready to give up. They would rather look for another job that offers flexible work.

Employees in semi-autonomous mode

The other major reason for not liking the return-to-office model is employees becoming used to working in a semi-autonomous mode with far less supervision from their managers. A whole new generation of employees who have joined the workforce in the last two years has never experienced the office environment with managers physically supervising their work. Better work-life balance, being with the family, and financial gains are clearly some of the major reasons why employees are reluctant to accept return-to-office permanently.

Throughout the pandemic, office employees have found benefits of remote work that they don’t want to give up: there’s no commute, you can exercise during breaks and eat healthier when there’s not an office lunch involved, and your schedule is more yours to make time for what’s important to you, like picking your child up from school or starting and finishing work earlier. They’re joining a movement called the Great Resignation — a wave of workers quitting their jobs after realizing they want better.

The future is about connecting

In a letter sent to company executives, a group of Apple workers voiced their opposition to the company’s return to office strategy, accusing the company of devaluing worker flexibility and implementing a policy “driven by fear.” “Office-bound work is a technology from the last century, from the era before ubiquitous video-call-capable internet and everyone being on the same internal chat application,” the letter reads. “But the future is about connecting when it makes sense, with people who have relevant input, no matter where they are based.”

At a Wall Street Journal industry event last year, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon weighed in on the idea of remote work, saying it “doesn’t work for people who want to hustle.” It “doesn’t work for culture, doesn’t work for idea generation,” Dimon continued. “We are getting blowback about coming back internally. But that’s life.” It appears the blowback won. Earlier last month, a year after JPMorgan had said everyone would be required to return to the office, Dimon conceded he now expects only about half his 270,000-person workforce to return to the office full time – and 10% will work fully remote.

New reality needs new processes

Looks like organizations must accept this new reality as the future of work and tailor ways of working, processes, management styles, remote working platforms, training, and hiring among others to suit a flexible future. Instead of looking for specific skills, organizations are identifying people who are quick learners, comfortable with ambiguity, and adaptable to rapidly changing scenarios. Flexible and hybrid work will mean less direct supervision. This will require employees who are self-motivated, can work in a semi-autonomous mode, and at the same time are at ease while collaborating over digital platforms. The shift is from skills to aptitude.

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