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Leaders have lost control of the office - they need to realize choice is key

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 3, 2021
Examples of senior leaders proclaiming that a return to the office is essential, without any nuance or reflection on how things have changed, will spell disaster down the line.

Image of a Lego figurine in an office at a desk
(Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay )

It's time to come to terms with the fact that leaders have lost control of the office and will struggle to dictate the terms by which employees turn up and sit at a desk all day under brightly lit LED lights. That's not to say that employees won't want to come into the office to spend time with their colleagues, to collaborate, or that there won't be certain roles that require more face-to-face time - but the rigid framework of being in an office nine to five, five days a week, needs to be forgotten completely. Hybrid is the future. 

If leaders don't come to terms with this, they risk putting their organizations at a distinct competitive disadvantage (in my mind). Flexibility and choice need to be central to any workplace strategy, otherwise employees will vote with their feet and go elsewhere. Simply put, if you want to retain the best talent, you need to not be so rigid. 

And this isn't just limited to choice around work location. The whole spectrum of employee experience needs to be a top priority. Just take a look at what is happening at Goldman Sachs, where first year bankers have complained to management about the "inhumane" working conditions and have said they will leave if things don't improve. Coincidentally, or not as the case may be, Goldman Sachs is also pushing hard for a full-time return to the office. 

Top banker Xavier Rolet, who ran the London Stock Exchange for eight years, commented on the news that the younger generation of bankers should stop complaining about working conditions or find another job. To which I say, I hope they do - as the more employees group together to demand a working experience that is mutually beneficial, the more likely these rigid organizations are likely to change. 

And, by the way, will likely perform better. A happy workforce means a more invested workforce, which can only be good for business. 

That's not to say that younger employees - or the workforce in general - don't want to work hard. It's just becoming increasingly clear, from the conversations I've had with forward-thinking organizations, that the COVID-19 pandemic has reset the relationship between employer and employee, and questions are being asked around: what works for you? 

In the UK we've had to suffer the government wanting to enthusiastically encourage all of us back to the office, under the guise of ‘fear for the economies in our towns and cities'. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was heavily criticized after running a media campaign last year encouraging everyone back to the office, only for it to be immediately followed by a huge spike in COVID-19 infections. 

Let's also not draw too much attention to the fact that many of those calling for commuters to get back to their offices have some commercial ties to office real estate. 

And yes, whilst the Prime Minister's concerns about local economies are somewhat true for major hubs, such as London, they also don't tell the full story. For example, we've spoken at length about how remote work could benefit economies beyond city centers - something that governments have been pushing for, for years. 

Will no-one think of the youth?!

And whilst the British government seems to have learnt its lesson about enthusiastically pushing for a return to the office, it is beginning to shape the narrative once again that ‘office good, remote bad'. 

For instance, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is in the headlines this morning after he told LinkedIn News that young people will see their careers benefit by working in the office. Also, as a side note, one of Sunak's former employers is none other than…Goldman Sachs. 

The Chancellor said: 

I doubt I would have had those strong relationships if I was doing my summer internship or my first bit of my career over Teams and Zoom.

That's why I think for young people in particular, being able to physically be in an office is valuable

I've spoken previously about young people in particular benefiting from being in offices: it was really beneficial to me when I was starting out in my career.

The mentors that I found when I first started my job, I still talk to and they've been helpful to me all through my career even after we've gone in different ways.

I don't disagree with Sunak's sentiments, in some ways. I too learnt a great deal from mentors and senior figures in the office, benefiting from face-to-face collaboration. However, the problem with his comments is the total lack of nuance. 

Just because younger workers would benefit from some time in the office, doesn't mean that a return to the office in full force is what's needed. It just suggests to me that the government would prefer things to return to a pre-COVID-19 situation, so as not to have to think through the implications of what an economy looks like with greater choice and flexibility. 

I truly believe that the tide has turned and job hunters now have a certain amount of control over what terms will be dictated in the future. It's worth pointing out that of course I know certain job roles across a range of industries aren't suited to at-home work, but what we are talking about here are the workers that make up a decent chunk of the workforce and have been working remotely for the past 18 months or so. 

Job hunters will vote with their feet and organizations that offer the best tooling, flexibility and choice will be the ones that attract and retain the best talent. That is what I'm sure of. Those that don't will likely look to mechanisms such as higher pay to attract people - which will work for some, but not for all. 

And as with most things, some will understand the changing nature of work now and be ahead of the curve in terms of their thinking, whilst others will be slow and spend years catching up. Remember when people used to say that cloud computing was a fad and would never work in the long term? Look how that saved many businesses during the pandemic…

My take

We've written extensively about the tooling and organizational changes required to adapt to remote work, which is a closely linked, but separate topic. What's important here is a cultural change and a recognition from leaders that without your best employees, an office is just a building and some walls.

People are always resistant to change, but workers have proven that remote working is not only possible, but highly productive. We know this works. 

If the workforce is telling you that they need flexibility in choice - where a hybrid approach will win out in the end - then listen to them if you want to succeed in the future. 

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