It’s beginning to look a lot like 2019. Roads are busier. People are lined up to catch early buses. Morning breakfast events are happening. Even workout studios are offering 5 a.m. classes. These are the signs of what we thought had changed forever – the five-day-a-week, in-the-office work culture.
Why? For many white-collar workers being ordered back, the reasons provided (even if it is only for two or three days for now) are weak.
Perhaps even worse is the only people who want the five-day-a-week return are ones who ordered it - not the ones who have to follow it.
So many workers believed that the remote or hybrid model they were following was here to stay. What happened?
Essentially nothing other than learning a new, flexible way to work where people were in a better, and happier, position to balance their work and home life. Even a couple of days working from home allowed for some much-needed flexibility to get a few things done, such as throwing in a load of laundry between meetings, rather than doing it after dinner. It made little, if any, impact on productivity – if anything it increased productivity because there are fewer distractions at home and no commute means more time to work.
What is more incredulous is that what we saw as an innovation in working has essentially been reversed, going back to the way things were. It’s like introducing computer word processing, but after a couple of years going back to a typewriter. Or giving people voicemail, only to go back to leaving messages on pink pieces of paper, left in the gopher holes for pick up at reception.
There have been a few reasons for wanting 2019, many of which do not hold up, and for good reason.
Myth: Employees waste time at home and not are really working.
Reality: Wasting time is not something someone suddenly discovers and then feels this is the new world of working for them. They were wasting time at the office, long before they were wasting time at home. Basically, those who delivered before 2020 continued to deliver at home.
Myth: Lots of unoccupied office space needs people in it.
Reality: Butts in seats are not the answer. Reducing office space to better meet the needs is. Some companies purposely designed their offices for 50 per cent or less of employees to be in at once. It reduces their carbon footprint, as well as leasing and other costs. Are expansive reception areas, long hallways of offices and entire floors of strictly cubicles necessary to be productive? Or is that just what 2019 looked like?
Myth: Face time builds culture and morale.
Reality: Perhaps, however, telling people to show up at the office five days a week will do nothing but build resentment, not morale. For companies that truly value this, they would use face time for face time benefit, which is collaboration, teamwork and brainstorming. Tasks such as report writing, email answering and other miscellaneous independent matters can be done elsewhere, such as at home. Building morale has nothing to do with being present and accounted for. It is about being present for relationship and team building opportunities.
Myth: Employees need to be managed, and that means knowing where they are and seeing them.
Reality: This is not management – this is control, which is toxic to teams and employees. If the leader though, is the senior leadership team, the rest of the leaders need to comply, whether they like it or not, inadvertently conveying that toxicity. Managing employees is about trust, respect and empowerment – not command and control.
This boils down to not a just a return to pre-2019 - its a return to 1950s management, where hierarchy, control and obedience reigned supreme. Leadership and workplace dynamics have evolved over time, as evidence links happy, healthy and engaged employees to good productivity and overall results. Going backward never works, and it certainly will not when it comes to people’s work and home lives. Companies may not only see a loss of good employees, but a loss of everything they have worked for, especially engagement and profits – all for the poorly explained five days a week return to the office.
Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary