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Face reality, Rishi: the remote work genie is out of the bottle

The UK chancellor Rishi Sunak wants everyone back in the office but Sharon O’Dea doesn’t quite agree.

Sharon O'Dea

Photo by Jordhan Madec on Unsplash.

Unleash Your Curiosity The UK chancellor Rishi Sunak wants everyone back in the office but Sharon O’Dea doesn’t quite agree.

  • Businesses have been preparing for a hybrid future for months.
  • Finally, employee and employer interests are converging, lowering costs, and improving efficiency.
  • But before we see the real benefits, organizations are required to make strategic investments if they are to fulfill their hybrid working model long-term.

In an interview with the Telegraph, UK chancellor Rishi Sunak warned workers must be allowed to return to offices or they’ll vote with their feet and quit. Looking beyond the pandemic, the Chancellor says working in an office is crucial for younger people to form working relationships and seek out mentors.

But there’s little evidence of this clamor for the commute. Surveys consistently show that employees largely enjoy the increased flexibility, and impacts on productivity have been limited. 

In the real world, businesses have been busy preparing for a hybrid future for months. For most this will mean some return to the office, but less frequently than pre-pandemic. Just yesterday Nationwide announced it’s closing two buildings for good and allowing staff to choose their own work pattern.

It’s a rare convergence of employee and employer interests, allowing the latter to reduce costs and improve efficiency while freeing the former from the cost and hassle of the commute. Recent months have seen a steady drip-drip of large businesses — from pharma to fashion — announcing they plan to adopt flexible, hybrid working for the long term.

While Covid forced an overnight shift, firms recognize making this work long-term requires strategic investment — in rethinking the use of physical space, and particularly in technology to support employees. 

While spend is squeezed elsewhere, 451 Research found four in five firms plan to maintain or increase investment in collaboration and productivity tools.

Remote work is here to stay

What makes Sunak’s ‘back to the office’ comments especially surprising is that the Treasury knows how important this investment is too. In the briefing published with this year’s Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) notes low diffusion of technology and best practice through the economy accounts for the UK’s relatively poor productivity. 

Citing ONS studies from 2016 and 2018, it suggests adoption of software and improvements in management practices each increase productivity by 10%. 

That’s certainly reflected in my own work; as we look to the post-Covid future organizations are looking not just at the tools they have, but upskilling their people to work effectively as part of hybrid teams. 

In The Nowhere Office, Julia Hobsbawm says detaching work from place and time  “will require management to go beyond watchful presentee-monitoring. Managers are going to have to get an awful lot better and more agile at managing distributed workforces.”

In other words: Remote work offers clear benefits for employees and employers alike, but realizing those benefits needs smart investment in technology and in management practices — precisely as the OBR’s advice states.

The Chancellor believes working from home is inferior to face-to-face work: “How do you get to know your peers, how do you learn the culture of an organization, how do you get those mentors, which are important for your career development?”

And there’s evidence to back this up. A report out from Microsoft this week found that Gen Z (those aged 18 to 25) are particularly struggling with isolation and overwork.

The office isn’t the answer

But while Sunak may have correctly identified the problem, it doesn’t follow that the office is the answer.

Jonathan Phillips, Head of Consulting at simplycommunicate comments “Building business relationships, for mentoring, productivity or creativity, is an important workplace skill, but the office is not the only place to foster this.” 

“Technology is both an enabler of conversation and a vital social leveler; compacting hierarchies and allowing shop floor and top floor to communicate together. Without the office, can you get a sense of the culture or get the mentoring opportunity your career needs? I believe it’s possible — the technology is both an amplifier of the corporate culture as well as a definer —but to get the most out of the platforms, you must also invest in culture, adoption, and capability.” 

It’s a problem global organisations have been grappling with for years; in my years working for a large global bank I met a fraction of my colleagues face to face. 

Businesses have had mixed success over the last decade using enterprise social tools (like Yammer, Slack or Workplace) to build and sustain culture. But the increasing maturity of the enterprise collaboration ecosystem has made this easier than ever to scale. 

Tom Gibby, co-founder of The Bot Platform, which provides no-code tools for companies to build bots for Workplace by Facebook and Teams said:

“The last year has seen a sharp focus on using technology to transform the digital employee experience and improve company culture. Whether that be messaging applications, video calls, work-based collaboration platforms, or even VR environments — many companies have realized they don’t need to be physically together to show their staff they care and foster a supportive working environment.”

Citing strong engagement scores from hitherto bricks-and-mortar firms like MoneyPenny and Honest Burgers, Gibby added “just because staff aren’t together physically doesn’t mean company culture can’t be transformed and improved digitally.”

Speaking to Radio 4’s Today, Joe Garner, chief executive of Nationwide, said the office would still play an important role, but people would not be told how often they have to travel into work.

“People do want to go,” he said. “They just don’t want to be compelled to go every day.”

Instead, Nationwide is breaking down the traditional silos between customer facing and office staff, trialling an initiative in five sites where traditional office-based employees can work alongside branch colleagues.

From burger chains to banks, these post-Covid plans highlight the opportunity to rethink operating models, detaching work from both time and place so they can be more agile, responsive and customer-focused.  

What businesses need is for government policy to catch up rather than fight the market. They need support to make investment in technology and, crucially, the skills needed to effectively use technology to boost productivity and engagement.

The government’s continued refusal to engage with the reality of our remote work future — pretending the genie can be put back in the bottle — leaves businesses unprepared, unsupported, and risks missing this golden opportunity to make work better for people, businesses, and communities. 

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