Return To Office Vs. Remote Work Debate
As I followed the announcements and debate on returning to the office vs. remote work, I had no intention of getting my dog in this debate when learning that Tesla, The New York Times, Netflix, and others announced a mandate for all employees to return to the office environment.
Then ATT announced the same mandate… now, this is not a hit piece. I’m a loyal and satisfied ATT mobile customer. For the life of me though, I cannot understand companies, particularly, tech-centric companies would mandate all employees back to the office; (or call centers).
Heck, companies like Zillow have decided to have some 90% of their workforce continue to work remotely; even Southwest Airlines announced they are closing 100% of their reservations centers, in favor of 3,200 remote workers handling the staggering volume of calls each day. (Simply Flying) identically, Southwest owned most if not all of these facilities.
Oh, I understand very well the IT department’s argument of mitigating risk for cyber attacks on the servers by having employees log in direct to the servers from company offices vs remote VPN. Then there is the C-Suite argument that we have better controls on employee productivity if they are in the office. In-person, face-to-face interaction is fundamental to accountability and healthy relationships.
As a champion of effective leadership through work-family culture, I view these arguments as the tail wagging the dog. The benefits of remote workforce options outways the risks and opinions that led to these “return’ mandates. Part of a leader’s job is clearing obstacles for the workforce to make the heavy lifting easier for the employee group (I refer to them as your work family). while its the IT department’s role is to protect company data and keep the servers up and running, it is not its role to dictate or overly influence policy or make their job easier, which has been a common flaw in many a company’s leadership over the last two decades. IT is a support function in a company; It is their job to work the risk mitigation for any operational profile/environment. Let’s face it – from a percentage of incidents standpoint, breaches in data security have been minimal during the pandemic period, and 100% or nearly 100% of the work-family has been working remotely.
By the way, that is a testament to what IT professionals can and have done to ensure measures were taken to protect company data and servers, as well as online reliability during the pandemic and largely remote login, are to be commended for this.
Now, if the C-Suite is wringing their hands as they consider all the empty office space (owned or leasehold), worried about employee productivity remotely and yes, morale, due to lack of in-person contact, thus mandating a return to the offices for all job classifications; well I’m sorry, this is flawed leadership. Allow me to tackle these one at a time.
- I’ll bet your P&L does not have a line item under expenses for employee turnover. Your HR executive can, however, provide you with those stats and calibrate the cost of turnover, resulting from employees who have chosen to seek employment at a company that allows the continuation of remote work. The unintended consequence is that valued employees are lost to employers where the remote work roles have enormous benefits to employees. Chief among them; no commute expenses, reduced or no child care expenses, no office drama, reduced wardrobe maintenance expenses, flexibility in domicile (i.e. living near an aging parent or children)
- The question of productivity/accountability. If the C-Suite is concerned about anemic productivity and shortfalls in meeting remote employees’ goals/metrics, the solution is simple. Be clear about the scope of work, goals, and realistic metrics, and hold them accountable. Chapter three of my book (“Leading with LUV”) clearly states: Sometimes tough love is required of leaders to hold direct reports accountable for falling short of the stated metrics. In my corporate life mentoring the next generation of leaders, and in my coaching and consulting business today, I see this area as the second biggest gap in performing a leader’s duty. Avoiding the tough LUV conversation with self-grubling is not going to advance the cause and culture of your business unit or company. You might be pleased to know that many companies have seen an increase in productivity from remote working. Largely from the elimination of distractions of breakroom and cubicle chit chat. (See the citrix.com/fieldwork comments and survey provided in the written blog.)
- Excess office space (owned or leasehold). Excess office space can be disposed of, including selling tangible property assets. Take the lease payment and utility savings and sales proceeds, and plow it into Cap-X or employee morale-building events. Whether you are in the C-Suite, or on the board of a company, large or small, I’d like to encourage you to really examine which job classifications are really necessary for the office vs. those that are not and the corresponding benefits that can accrue to both the company and the work family. Heck, I’ll wager one of those new morale-building events funded by shifting expense savings I referred to will have the energy and joy of a high school or family reunion. Having employees performing at optimum levels and achieving workplace happiness does not have to be complicated.
Note* It is not lost on me that certain roles within companies require certain job classifications be at the office or on-site. (i.e. manufacturing, distribution centers, brick/mortar retail, airport operations, and many more)