Captains of industry and political heavyweights convene in Davos, Switzerland, each January to discuss humanity’s biggest challenges, covering topics ranging from the climate crisis to international conflict. But a somewhat less grave issue – albeit one that’s preoccupied many CEOs since the pandemic ended – was also up for debate at the 2024 World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting: what is the role of the office?
Many business leaders view the shared central workplace as a key enabler of cooperation and cultural cohesion – and they’re still keen to stress its importance. Over the past couple of years, they have tried various methods to persuade employees who’ve become adherents of remote working to return to HQ.
The number of vacancies on LinkedIn advertised as remote over this period has fallen by 50%, according to the social network. Yet such flexibility remains popular with candidates: 46% of all applications made on the site are for roles offering hybrid working arrangements.
LinkedIn’s co-founder and vice-president of product management, Allen Blue, told WEF delegates: “The office is in competition with working from home,” but he added that this was a good thing.
Businesses must be innovative with how they use the office
Blue reasoned that this state of affairs has been forcing employers to become more innovative in their use of office space, seeking ways to make HQ an environment that “emphasises dynamic human interaction”.
Citing his own firm as a case in point, Blue revealed that it had closed several buildings on its campus to encourage hybrid workers to congregate more densely in the few that were open. This had made the remaining available office space an “incredibly busy, energetic place”, he said. “We’ve made the space more valuable for collaboration rather than just heads-down work, so that every trip to the office is worthwhile.”
The concept of ‘earning the commute’ is catching on fast among employers keen to encourage their hybrid workers to venture into the office more often.
Lieve Mostrey, CEO of financial services company Euroclear, believes that office working makes it easier for new starters to learn their roles and get up to speed, while creative and project-based work tends to be of a higher standard when not done remotely. But she told WEF delegates that her firm had been more flexible than most in implementing its return to office.
“We took a unique approach towards hybrid working,” Mostrey explained. “We’re not going to do a mandate across the organisation, because different types of jobs have different requirements.”
There was no point, she observed, in asking someone to come to HQ only for that person to spend all that time engrossed in coding, say, and barely interacting with their colleagues.
Mostrey reported that employee engagement at Euroclear had increased by 30% as a result of the firm’s considered HR policy, adding: “Clearly, engaged staff are more productive than disgruntled staff.”
CEOs must consider who needs the office the most
Gen Z workers seeking greater flexibility have often been targeted for criticism in this debate. At Davos last year, JPMorgan Chase’s chairman and CEO, Jamie Dimon, argued that remote working served neither junior employees nor their managers, for instance. More recently, Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner of PwC’s UK and Middle East alliance, chided younger members of staff for spending too little time together in the office.
Yet Bain & Co’s managing partner, Manny Maceda, revealed to WEF delegates that his firm’s younger employees had been the most eager members of its workforce to attend HQ.
“Coming out of the pandemic, our young college grads wanted to go into the office and interact with the more senior people to learn from them,” he reported. “It was harder to get the senior people back in, because they had nicer homes.”
Mostrey said that she’d also found that offering an appropriate balance of office and remote working had been “an asset” to her firm in its efforts to attract young talent.
Euroclear had also noticed geographic variances in employees’ eagerness to return to the office. She explained: “In places where housing is typically much smaller, it is hard to work from home. In Paris and Hong Kong, we see more people coming to the office, so this is not only related to culture; it is also related to the physical environment.”
The fact that so many employers are still experimenting with hybrid arrangements suggests that they have yet to find the optimum balance.
As Mostrey noted: “We’re in a collective social experiment here. Things are changing so quickly, so we have to give a bit of time for everyone to find a new equilibrium.”