Should office workers be asked to return to the office?

Posted in Business and entrepreneurship.

With vaccines for COVID-19 starting to make an appearance, some businesses are starting to request employees to return to the workplace rather than work from home. This has met with some criticism by those employees who have happily been working remotely for the past few months. It seems that both business managers and employees have valid arguments for and against returning to the workplace.

Many non-office workers never ever left the workplace due to using specialised or fixed equipment in their work activities. This includes those providing care, operation machinery, using lab equipment, delivering items, and processing customer transactions in stores. For the rest, office workers especially, how necessary is it for them to return to the workplace?

The arguments for why office workers do not need to return to the office

It might seem like the world stopped when the pandemic started. However, since then, businesses have been surviving and sometimes even thriving despite the changed conditions. Some workers are saying, “If we’re doing alright now, why bother returning?” To others, this might just seem like an excuse for staying at home. Staying at home has been associated with slacking off, after all, but is it really true?

Prior to the pandemic, many businesses didn’t know how to make remote working work. Since then, they have been forced to adapt and figure out ways of making it work and they succeeded. A study of US workers showed a 5% increase in productivity, most of which was attributed to a decrease in commute times. The falling away of commuting and the increased flexibility allowed by remote working allows workers to better balance their work, family, and personal priorities. For some, this resulted in increased motivation, efficiency and productivity. Some people are just more productive in remote working environments where there are less distractions. This setup, in particular, really helps those with special needs. This has been echoed by Apple employees who saw remote working as a way to contribute to company diversity and inclusivity.

The arguments for asking office workers to return to the office

Since the argument for continuing remote work is that it is more productive for some and just as productive for most of us, what really can returning to the workplace achieve? More social interactions? Some consider social interactions in the workplace as a big distraction. Time that could have been spent on productive work is then spent on gossiping and politicking, is how they see it. However, is this really such a bad thing?

A majority of the reasons to return to the workplace besides using specific tools and equipment are social. Many workers carry out their social lives within the workplace. Remote working takes away this aspect of their lives. Coworker relationships are important for collaborative work. Returning to the workplace facilitates the development of these relationships. The isolation of remote work takes away the feeling of being part of a whole. Some employees miss this.

Nobody likes video conferencing. It doesn’t work as well for communicating and socialising as in-person conversations do. Some people also find them quite annoying when used for meetings. The increased flexibility allows for workers to easily zone out in meetings while still appearing as if they are paying attention. Many workers have stated that they would rather have meetings in-person.

Lastly, there are always going to be specific conditions and situations where there are complications with remote work. Legal workers have been working remotely, but remote court proceedings appear to be a grey area at present. Teachers, by logic, should be able to perform remote teaching, but questions are constantly being asked of the productivity of online teaching. Studies about remote work productivity increases have mostly focused on office workers. Therefore, the research cannot be generalised to other spheres and professions.

Where do we go from here?

There seems to be valid arguments on both sides. What’s the compromise? Some have put forth suggestions for blended working. Here, office workers may need to come to work if there is a special meeting. Another approach is to have set days at the office and set days remote working. Essentially, returning to the workplace should be on a situational-basis.

There has been some conflict between those advocating for remote work (mostly employees) and those advocating for a return to the workplace (mostly employers). It is a deep psychological human need to have a reason for doing something. Many express displeasure when they are told to do things without any clear reasons. Businesses intending for employees to return to the workplace should make it very clear why. If employees can understand why returning is beneficial to the company, they are less likely to see it as a drawback, as unnecessary, or as an inconvenience.