On 1 April, Bruce Daisley, author of The Joy of Work, posted a whimsical observation on LinkedIn that would ignite a serious debate about the modern workplace. He questioned whether an ‘in the office’ (ITO) message should supersede the traditional ‘out of office’ auto-reply (OOO). Given the timing of his post, the biggest fools are employers failing to adapt, because the old normal is no longer fit for purpose.
“Heard a brilliant thing today,” he wrote. “One firm says they don’t want workers in the office spending all day on email. The suggestion is that everyone should put their ‘in the office’ message on and deal with email from home.”
Daisley explains that he made the comment after he’d got wind of complaints from several employers that their hybrid workers were spending too much of their time in the office catching up on their emails, participating in video calls and completing other tasks that they could perform just as well remotely.
“We’ve spent two years reflecting on the best way to get our work done and then we’ve sleepwalked into a horrible solution,” says Daisley, who argues that the onus is on employers to determine which activities are most suitable in each workplace.
Noting that people often confuse being busy with being productive, he adds: “Hybrid working isn’t the best of both worlds; it’s the worst. We need to redefine our cultures. The more intentional we get about what we’re using the office for, the better. The office is a brilliant resource, but we don’t need to use it for everything.”
The argument is that the Covid crisis has generally tilted the balance of power at work towards employees, so the evolution of the office must keep pace with their changing preferences. Moreover, offices should be markedly different from remote working environments. Although much time, money and effort is required to make a success of hybrid working, culture should be the true key to progress.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results of a survey published by digital IT consultancy Ricoh Europe in March suggest that underinvestment and poor planning have reduced the effectiveness of firms’ return-to-office policies.
The indications are that employers throughout Europe have been struggling to adapt. Of the 3,000 workers polled on Ricoh’s behalf in the UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy the Netherlands and Spain, 36% said they had felt pressured to return to the office, while 44% agreed that their company’s culture had suffered during the Covid lockdowns. Pertinent to the debate about office-based work, 48% considered themselves “more productive when working remotely”.
Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder and CEO of Flexa Careers, says she has been heartened to see that some organisations have understood recent changes in how employees view working in the office. But she argues that most of them need to do much more in this respect to attract and retain talent.
“The fact that we need to indicate when we are ‘in the office’ signals how people have come expect to work remotely for some, if not most, of their time,” she says. “For many companies we work with, office work is now reserved purely for the tasks and conversations that face-to-face meetings make easier. Having ‘ITO’ days for this kind of work can help to keep teams connected, maintain a sense of structure and boost staff wellbeing.”
Johnson-Jones cites research published in April by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development indicating that remote work is far more likely to boost an employee’s productivity than reduce it.
Flexibility is vital, which means that dictating when staff have ITO days can prove detrimental, she stresses.
“On days when coming into the office isn’t going to provide workers with any of the benefits mentioned – perhaps when they want to focus on deep work – they must not feel bound to do so,” says Johnson-Jones. “This is when companies risk tipping into creating a culture of presenteeism.”
She continues: “ITO days are helpful only if we keep them flexible. Employers must recognise that remote and office-based work are complementary and also that it’s no bad thing if one occurs more often than the other.”
Just over three-quarters (77%) of organisations are planning to redesign their offices to include more open-plan areas and collaboration spaces, according to new research from Poly, a US provider of telecoms tech.
This finding tallies with Tim Oldman’s belief that the “hotelification” of the workplace is a growing trend. He is the founder and CEO of Leesman, a firm that helps firms to assess the employee experience provided by their workplaces.
“Employees will treat offices differently because they are using them nomadically, booking in for a conscious stay,” Oldman notes. “They need to be beacons of warmth and hospitality to motivate them to come.”
He makes an important point about the feeling of sanctuary that returning to the office can offer to people whose remote workplaces are far from ideal.
“In a typical knowledge business, up to a third of employees do not have a separate space at home that they can designate for work,” he explains. “These people risk being a forgotten minority, whose needs are overlooked by those further progressed in their careers who are privileged enough to have a private room to spare.”
Of the idea that ITO is becoming the new OOO, Oldman says: “It’s happening already, although on a small scale. We aren’t yet at the point of this becoming a trend, but we are experimenting with post-pandemic practices.”
Stuart Templeton, head of Slack Technologies in the UK, offers a different take. He believes that “all businesses should be introducing and prioritising a digital headquarters: a place that serves as the main hub for collaboration, communication and connection between teams, wherever they are. The digital HQ doesn’t mean the office will disappear; it will be used for social, collaborative and dynamic activities.”
A digital HQ might be too futuristic for some people. But what’s evident is that where and when work takes place should be hugely different from the norm before the pandemic struck. A recent survey of 10,000 knowledge workers by Future Forum, a research consortium supported by Slack, has found that schedule flexibility is more important to them than location flexibility.
“Whatever work is done in the physical office, employees need to have a say in when they’re there,” Templeton argues. “Employers that don’t act accordingly will pay the price. Workers who are unsatisfied with their level of flexibility – in both where and when they work – are three times likelier than those who are satisfied to say they will ‘definitely’ seek a new employer in the coming year.”
He adds that if you’re “coming into an office daily just to stare at a screen, something’s gone wrong.”