Woman At Laptop With Dog On Lap

The great disconnect

Employees working from home may need to be coaxed back into the office

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
4 minute read
Woman At Laptop With Dog On Lap

With a high number of jabs reaching our arms and our commitment to live with the pandemic, it seems things are finally getting back to some form of normal.

Sports fanatics are pouring into stadiums, travellers are getting back into the air, shoppers are hitting the stores, movie buffs are heading back into cinemas and foodies are converging on restaurants.

Despite an enthusiastic return to our pre-pandemic leisure activities, the same level of joy appears absent when it comes to where we worked before COVID-19 hit – in the office.

After a long period of remote working, a growing number of employers are keen to get employees back into the office.

Yet this seemingly simple matter is proving decidedly tricky to navigate.

Smack in the middle of a tight job market and on the back of “The Great Resignation”, during which workers have changed employers in droves, beleaguered bosses have been forced to wrestle with a new challenge that has been dubbed the “The Great Disconnect”.

This widening disconnect has been created by a push by some employers to get people back into offices, only to create a clash with workers who have embraced remote work as the new normal and insist on staying put.

The full extent of our love affair with remote working has been revealed in a survey undertaken by The Future Forum.

The study, which assessed the appetite for remote working of almost 11,000 white-collar workers across Australia, the US, France, Germany, Japan and Britain, found only about one-third of those surveyed worked from the office every day.

While health reasons are cited by some for their office abandonment, there are legions of white-collar workers who simply do not like the thought of returning to what they consider to be a pre-pandemic way of working.

Unlike those who worked on the frontline, many office-based employees were directed to work from home when employers closed workplaces because of pandemic-related concerns.

Begrudgingly, white-collar workers set up make-shift home offices while complaining of isolation, technology challenges, endless video calls, a blurring of work and personal lives, longer than normal working hours and having to share temporary desk space with others in their household.

While some struggled with the whole remote working set-up, others began see upside including from the absence of a time-consuming commute and the benefits of more independence, more flexibility and even increased personal productivity.

A decent-sized bundle of employees enjoyed the experience so much that when it was time to return to the workplace, they preferred to quit rather than return full-time to the office.

There is, of course, a group of employers that has embraced the concept of large numbers of their employers continuing to work remotely on a full-time and permanent basis.

These employers see themselves as progressive and believe the risks associated with remote working are offset by the many advantages.

Others are staring down the barrel of empty office seats and trying to assess the damage that might come with a diminishing sense of community among their workforce.

Their concerns extend to being locked into long-terms rental arrangements and unease that new hires will not get the benefit of learning from more experienced colleagues.

Unconvinced of the merits of remote working, these employers are trying to coax their staff back to the workplace.

Some managers have attempted to meet workers halfway by negotiating hybrid arrangements involving some days in the office to complement time WFH.

Yet even these arrangements do not satisfy a large portion of the workforce which wants to continue to work remotely – all day, every day.

Fearing that employees with a preference for working remotely or via hybrid arrangements will quit if pushed too hard to return fully to the office, many bosses end up with their hands tied.

The hesitancy of some to return to the office has delivered a reality check for employers, many of whom had assumed that workers would approach a return to the office with the same enthusiasm with which they have returned to pre-pandemic leisure activities.

For beleaguered bosses desperately hoping to boost their office occupancy, there may be a work-around.

When technology disrupted bricks-and-mortar stores and fuelled a surge in online spending, retailers moved to make in-store shopping a worthwhile experience.

With technology now disrupting bricks-and-mortar offices, employers will be compelled to make the office a worthwhile experience, too.

It begs the question: what might that experience look like?