Though adopted somewhat reluctantly at the height of COVID, remote working was nonetheless seen by most as evidence of corporate progress. However, with major US companies across the board now calling their employees back to the office, it begs the question whether remote work wasn’t the paradigm shift many professed, but a shot-lived emergency trend. Laetitia Vitaud, our Lab expert on the future of work, digs a little deeper to find answers.
Since it was widely adopted during the pandemic, remote working has continuously been vilified by managers and leaders (and even occasionally by non-managerial employees who actually benefit from it). It’s been accused of all sorts of evils: hindering productivity, creativity, commitment and even a sense of belonging.
While these attacks are nothing new, what is surprising is that for a few while now, tech companies in Silicon Valley, the very companies that built the devices that facilitate remote working, have also jumped on the bandwagon. Some of these companies, such as Google, Meta and even Salesforce, have been rolling back the perks gained during the pandemic – much to the disappointment of their employees. What is behind these business leaders acting with such distrust? What does this current U-turn mean? What does it reveal?
3 good reasons why bosses resent remote working
These past years have been marked by worsening work-related issues: higher rates of burnout, a significant rise in absenteeism, lower engagement… there are therefore some good reasons to resent extensive remote working.
1. Remote working is detrimental to new and young employees
As all young (and not so young) workers who started a new job during lockdown know, it’s much harder to build ties with the team you’ve joined, to enjoy your work and to have access to decent information when you’re far away during the onboarding phase. Being away from their colleagues, new recruits can feel disoriented and tend to quit sooner.
This is not to forget that WFH can hinder career progression due to proximity bias. It’s harder to build a strong network from a distance. Therefore, concerned about improving the retention of their young recruits, bosses are susceptible to resenting this form of working, which impairs integration and retention.
2. WFH can undermine productivity
Remote workers can obviously concentrate at home and produce quality ‘deep work’. But in some cases, productivity depends on the quality of exchanges with your colleagues (and the sharing of information). When the organization of collaborative work fails in terms of remote access to information, we can indeed become less productive in the absence of colleagues. However, it’s worth noting that this negative link between productivity and WFH does not enjoy a complete consensus: advocates for WFH have arguments (and studies) to support the opposite…
3. Remote work does not always facilitate a sense of belonging among workers
Due to a lack of informal exchanges and spontaneous social interaction in the office, we often develop less trusting relationships and friendships with our colleagues. Worse still, there is often a sense of paranoia which develops among workers who only occasionally see their colleagues and managers in the flesh. It’s important not to underestimate the essential role played by body language and in-person rituals (such as breakfasts and afterwork events) with regards to emotional safety and emotional trust. By pressing ahead with asynchronous work, we’ve ended up neglecting our need for synchronicity…
The backlash towards WFH reveals a shifting balance of power
Is the Great Resignation coming to an end?
In the US, just like elsewhere, staff turnover has been higher over the course of the past two years. The ‘Big Quit’ and ‘Quiet Quitting’ reflects the great balance of power that employees have enjoyed: in a dynamic jobs market with an abundance of opportunities, we have less qualms about leaving our jobs (or working less) because we know we could easily find another one. We can ask for (and get) better pay. And we can demand more flexible working conditions with more WFH. In fact, a number of employees have resigned after their employer rolled back WFH policies.
However, the ‘Great Resignation’ may have already come to an end with figures indicating that voluntary resignations have been decreasing since spring 2023 in the American jobs market – and to a lesser extent in the European one too.
A slowdown in the economy and in hiring may be looming. As for tech companies, the austerity bell has been ringing for a while. The tech giants have already laid off tens of thousands of employees. In the interests of ‘efficiency,’ tech companies, which have been hiring continuously for years, could continue to ‘streamline’ their workforces.
Against this backdrop, such companies have no concerns about hurting their workers’ feelings by taking away the option to work from home. “If they want to leave, they can leave!” seems to be the implicit message conveyed by tech bosses. In the case of Elon Musk, this message has been explicit. The proof that this power balance has shifted? Despite these companies axing WFH, these companies are also implementing cuts to the services and perks offered at the office, such as unlimited snacks and lavish cafeterias, which Silicon Valley workers used to enjoy.
So, is WFH is dead?
Not knowing how to measure real productivity, we lean on attendance hours, productivity theater and political posturing: all things for which the office is preferred. While some WFH concerns are valid, this “return to the office” championed by major bosses often stems from wishful thinking and bad faith rather than compassion. The office is not always the productivity and serene paradise that they describe. It all depends on the nature of the work, the working conditions and the team culture.
According to a study cited by Fortune, there may even be a link between this forced return to the office and… a drop in productivity! This could be down to workers being demotivated, the best ones leaving the company, or the team culture suffering from a lack of trust in employees. A forced return to the office stokes a crisis in human resources. When Marissa Mayer forced Yahoo’s teams to return to the office in 2013, even though they (already) enjoyed a great deal of flexibility when it came to organizing their work, the company was already doomed. Not only did the forced return not “bring teams together,” it accelerated and marked the beginning of the end. Today, history could repeat itself with the company formerly known as Twitter: when Elon Musk forced the (few) non-laid-off workers to return to the office, the social media platform was already in free fall. It’s now lost most of its active users.
With all due respect to those who condemn it, WFH is here to stay. It’s part of the picture. We undoubtedly need to rethink collective work, rituals and communication in the age of hybrid working. But any going back will not facilitate this reinvention. Companies still concerned about recruiting and retaining talent cannot allow themselves to ignore the employee desire for flexibility and the profound cultural changes brought about by our digital practices. No matter how hard you try, you can’t fit a square into a circle.
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
Translated by Jamie Boradway
More inspiration: Laetitia Vitaud
Future of work author and speaker
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