Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Millions of white-collar workers grumbled their way back to offices this week under various on-site attendance mandates, lamenting the fact that Mr. Hyde, not his softer alter ego, is alive and well and setting HR strategy at their companies.
In their backpacks and totes, they lugged with them a sense of entitlement and activism that has shaped workplaces since before the pandemic enabled widespread remote work, often putting them at odds with leaders and begging the question: Who’s in charge?
There is still no definitive answer, but this latest wave of callbacks suggests the dog is starting to wag the tail again, not the other way around. That is a positive sign that what JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon called the “aberration” of the work-from-home bubble is losing altitude.
Mr. Dimon and counterparts atop big financial services companies have been scorned for their hard-line in-office policies. Many banks have mandated on-site attendance at least three days a week and often five days. Some have tied attendance to compensation, warning that noncompliance could put bonus pay at risk and, in some cases, making attendance violations grounds for termination.
These stands send the unequivocal message that those who are ultimately responsible for the performance of their companies are in charge – as they should be – and running a successful company isn’t a popularity contest when jobs, customers and investors are on the line.
The rationale among back-to-the-office advocates is typically tied to the value of collaboration, culture and creativity, which they say suffered during the work-from-home era. Sure, the industrial logic suggests, technology enables remote work, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should – it’s not always the best path to creating a high-performance organization.
Remote-work boosters counter that productivity among the work-at-home set is higher because they work longer hours and can maintain a better work-life balance, though many of the studies supporting this claim are based on self-reporting. If asked, who wouldn’t say they were more productive?
Moreover, if you’ve been in business long enough, you know that individual productivity can be a red herring. The sad reality is that in too many cases most of the work is done by a small number of people.
A contributing factor to the issue is that many white-collar workers have become entitled, believing that in addition to getting paid for their work, they should also get to dictate everything from when and where they work to which social or political issues their corporate leaders take on. It’s amazing that with all this non-core sanctimony, these people have time and energy left to do their work.
At the same time, many companies have become soft – even cowardly – fearful that mandating in-office work or saying no to their employees will exacerbate an already tight talent market.
These companies have taken a carrot-on-a-stick approach to cajoling people out of their bathrobes and sweatpants and back to the office, with workspace designs that are ergonomically and aesthetically appealing to those who may need a nudge to re-enter office environments.
These happy places have quiet spaces for contemplation, collaboration stations, sitting and lounging areas, food courts – basically, replicas of home environments that effectively separate a worker’s nose from any grindstone.
If you lived through the dot-com era, you have seen this nonsense before. In an effort to attract and retain young, creative talent, the corporate suits created office environments that were more playgrounds than workspaces.
From climbing walls to nap rooms to videogame arcades, the pandering knew no bounds. Problem was, workplaces were such fun, many workers didn’t do much work. When the dot-com bubble burst under the heavy weight of fictional valuations, playtime was over, and work went back to being, well, work.
It’s encouraging to see the shift toward grown-up sensibility happening before the next bubble bursts – this time in the form of a recession or worse. Some companies have already announced that in the next round of layoffs remote workers will be the first to go because their value is harder to calculate than that of their in-office counterparts.
For corporate leaders still tiptoeing through the issue, take a tip from Mr. Hyde. Put some teeth into back-to-the-office policies and tie compliance to pay and job security.
There’s a good chance those who complain the loudest are among the underperformers anyway, so losing them will not affect productivity.