Office based companies in 2020 did not make a strategic choice to adopt full time working from home policies. They had no choice. Whilst already available technologies, such as Zoom, were quickly adopted, and have helped redefinewhere we can work, many companies in adopting working from home sought primarily to recreate the office in an employee’s home and keeping to pre-existing working patterns.
In many ways what office-based businesses were seeking was monitored home-based presenteeism. By adopting this method, many employers stored up problems for post-Covid patterns of working.
Perhaps naively, many firms took the view that post-Covid, the return to the office would be a natural, seamless transition with workers happy to recommence commuting.They expected hybrid working (the sharing of working time between the office and the home) to be quickly taken up.
However, the upsides of ‘home working’ had gained traction and expectations of work began to fundamentally change during Covid. The need for a defined place of work weakened. Sharing technologies illustrated that office-based work was not the only choice for many. The ability for employees to organise their time around tasks rather than the office clock stimulated challenges to long held post-war practices. The utility of the commute came under the microscope.
Partly, to stabilise new threats, businesses have sought to champion the benefits of hybrid working. However, such an approach can be viewed as an attempt to reaffirm, albeit partially, pre-Covid white collar office practices.
Hybrid policies which state that employees should be in the office, say, three fixed days a week, could be seen as a romantic wish for a return to pre-Covid office life, whilst at the same time diluting many new freedoms gained by working fromhome.
A few leading international companies have been trying to force full time returns, many meeting with heavy resistance. In these worlds a desire for presenteeism seems centre stage.
Grappling with these changes for a working world that was formerly office based requires a step back from hybridity. Forcing people to their offices where there is no clear purpose for being present is often perceived as pointless. However, thereare still many occasions when an office visit will be required.
JuliaHobsbawm’s new book, Nowhere Office, makes the point that employees are often going to need to visit the office even when the space may be smaller or impermanent.
There are many other reasons why visits to the office will be necessary. Think team briefings, face to face client meetings and new business preparations. Onoccasions scrum teams might need to meet for special projects. New employees might benefit from in-person working contact shortly after joining.
Stating that someone should attend three days a week without a clear purpose for being present might be hybrid, but it certainly sits outside the concept of flexible working.
The journey toward flexible working will not be easy. It relies on the employer not trying to reassemble established working patterns. It requires the employee to resist attempts to be too regimented about office attendance whilst also not promoting the idea of further attempts to recreate the office at home.Considerable work is necessary for a new blueprint focused on genuine flexibility.
Moving toward flexible working must involve seeking new ways to embrace many of the positive benefits that emerged from traditional office-based work.
Face to face contact, organisational networking, ad hoc inclusion and involvement indecisions, projects and socialising with colleagues are all upsides that need reworking.
Employers may be resistant to such changes arguing that culture and working spirit can only be built around a physical office space. An argument that should be resisted given the resilience, co-operation, and corps de spirit experienced by many businesses during Covid.
The journey from hybrid to flexible is already percolating through the business world.
Written By: Kevin Read, Chief Executive Officer
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