Plenty of companies are starting to plan for a return to the office, particularly now that Canada has started to pass vaccination thresholds. The challenges are neither few nor simple, however.
The physical logistics are pretty well known at this point, and by the time people can consistently return to offices, some of those accommodations likely won’t be needed. (None of these changes would make cube farms less depressing. Sorry.)
More challenging, on several fronts, will be very real considerations that sound somewhat like journalistic inquiry: what will offices be, where will people actually work, when will people work in the office, why will people use the office, and who will be coming back to the office?
Until March 2020, the office was ground zero for team culture in many ways. It’s where people spent time together. Mostly work time, but also casually social and recreational at times. There are often totems, like weird trophies from past events. Corkboards with photos. Swag with corporate logos adorning everything from pens to people.
But when everyone got sent home, it got a lot harder to maintain or build culture that way. Meme wars on Slack only go so far, and sorry about your luck if you’re in another time zone. Things have likely been a little stilted and strange for anyone hired into a new job since last spring. Coming back to the office could be like a big networking event, rather than Monday morning water cooler time.
Who all will be in the office? And when? While there are certainly people champing at the bit to spend eight or so “uninterrupted” hours at their desks as soon as possible, for others, working remotely has provided much-needed flexibility. Many people are unlikely to give that up willingly. And it’s been fairly conclusively proven that business can continue without physical proximity.
Companies that try to go hard-line on cancelling remote work may find themselves experiencing an exodus of those who hung in there over the past year, but aren’t happy about the new status quo or their sacrifices in keeping business going being “rewarded” with such inflexibility.
(You know there are going to be companies that still hold to the notion that people can’t be productive or trusted remotely.)
If you’re only in the office part-time, will you still get your own desk? Being relegated to an impersonal, often poorly located “hot desk” never fails to make one feel like a visitor or a second-class corporate citizen.
Many in offices already look down on certain people who always seem to have to be gone for the day. Maybe it’s that person who’s never around after 3 p.m. (even though they were in at 7 a.m.). Or that woman who’s regularly off because one of her kids got sick.
I guarantee at least some people’s upcoming choices for when they work remotely will cause friction, given the inconvenience it may cause their workmates or the lack of perceived dedication to being a team player.
What about meetings? We know how to make all-in-person meetings work. We’ve learned how to make all-remote meetings work. What about hybrid meetings, where some people are around the conference table and others are at home, in a coffee shop or elsewhere? Cameras on or off?
These kinds of meetings don’t tend to work well, especially if the majority of people present are in the office together. Nobody can hear well over a speakerphone, and those who dial in often end up peripheral, less informed and rarely consulted.
What’s the answer? Specific mandatory office days when everyone has to come in and all the major meetings can take place? Nothing like the prospect of a day with commuting and wearing hard pants, with back-to-back meetings for hours and hours, to get you excited about your work day.
Unfortunately, letting staff choose their own work-from-home days also isn’t recommended. According to this recent Harvard Business Review piece, choosing to work from home more carries significant career risks, and those people are less likely to get promoted.
Given that women are already more likely to use the flexibility of working from home, and need to be out of the office more often, it compounds an already substantial issue for women in the workplace being frozen out of positions of power.
Now, some companies did make grand pronouncements that they were going all in on remote working, like, forever. I’m not sure I buy that, but I guess we’ll see in the next year or so how that plays out.
At present, there’s a lot of expensive corporate real estate gathering dust. If companies choose not to go back to any office, what’s going to happen there? At least some cities’ cores or business districts would end up pretty much hollowed out. If any small businesses are still left in those areas, that would surely finish them off.
But the biggest – and potentially messiest – consideration of all will be us. Not us as worker pins to be moved around and accommodated in the office map. But us as who and what we’ve become over this year-plus of “unprecedented times.”
We are not the same. I was working remotely for years before the pandemic and even I’ve changed.
Some people are dealing with severe stress and mental health issues. Some people are going to be experiencing relationships ending; moving; job changes; financial stresses, issues with their children, partners, or other family members; health problems; grieving.
It’s going to be hard for work to be people’s focus for a while, even when we can breathe again. Even if we would desperately love to be able to just focus on doing work again.
Adjusting to “normal” will take time. What even is normal anymore? Many, many people will tell you that what we don’t want is for everything to go back to how it was pre-March 2020. That didn’t work for – and was actively exploitative of – a lot of people.
Some people will be hyper-productive, some people will struggle with even limited productivity. Junior workers will not have been able to develop skills, competence, and confidence (or crucial mentorship relationships) at the same rate they would have otherwise.
Some people just won’t be able to do it. And some will decide they don’t want to. I am quite curious to see what happens in entrepreneurial circles over the next couple of years, not to mention seeing who leaves tech and the corporate grind for something wildly different. Plenty of people already had a long list of reasons not to stick around...
Speaking of people who’ve left, many women have. Many had to. This pandemic is going to set back women’s gains in the work world possibly by generations. Which blows. Good companies need to be aware of that, and actively plan to address it.
That means better options for working women and families going forward. Making concrete plans and actions to get the women who can and want to come back into good jobs. Not just restricting them to the bottom rungs of the ladder despite their years of experience.
Going back to the office is going to involve a lot more than just wrestling your good office chair back into the car and buying khakis that actually fit you now. It will be a celebratory time for some. It will be a time of stress for others. Making work work again is going to take time, flexibility, communication, and a strong commitment to not leaving anyone behind.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.