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As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020, a new term was introduced to office workers across the country: Zoom. With remote work taking precedence, in-person meetings were replaced by video calls, eliminating tedious daily commutes and providing employees with more control and autonomy over their tasks. To the extent that Zoom in the context of virtual meetings underwent an anthimerical change from a noun to a verb.

Many employers are in the media, becoming more and more intransigent in their demands to get their staff back in the office. Somewhat ironically, the company at the epicentre of ability for most knowledge workers to be able to work remotely, Zoom, is the latest company that has chosen to issue edicts demanding some of their team come into the corporate workplace at least three days a week. 

A huge amount of virtual column inches has been dedicated to the pros and cons of offices and remote working, including here at WorkplaceFundi where workers and employers are free to express their opinions on the subject.

Learning from History

As with most hotly contested topics, there is nothing new under the Sun and the debate over remote work is fundamentally a deliberation over employees being able to exert more control over their working conditions.

One such historical example is the Luddite movement, which occurred in England between the years 1811 and 1816. The Luddites were those workers opposed to manufacturers who were utilising machines in the textile mills of northern England, which were accused of taking the place of skilled labour.

The Luddite movement was put down with legal and military force and with the punishment of execution or penal transportation for those who were accused or convicted.

The Luddites of the 1810s were not actually opposed to mechanisation but rather the unwanted interference from their employers in labour practices. So, for centuries, workers have sought to gain more control over working conditions.

The transition to remote work in March 2020 left a lot of people feeling shaken, but it has granted workers a great deal of independence and adaptability. This newfound freedom has been the source of much joy for workers, especially when it comes to quality of life.

Often times, employees without someone at home to manage household matters or take care of ill family members were faced with quite a challenge. However, these issues are no longer concerns for those relying on the convenience of remote working.

Despite some employers embracing remote work, the majority have encouraged or mandated a partial return to the office. This prompted Amazon CEO Andy Jassy to suggest that “inventing is easier and more effective when we’re in person." But this advice has been met with widespread disapproval, with up to 30,000 employees signing a petition denouncing the decision and taking to the streets in opposition.

People naturally value and desire freedom. Once individuals experience the benefits and opportunities that come with freedom, they tend to resist any attempts to take it away. This resistance can manifest in various forms, such as protests, activism, and even rebellion.

What are we trying to achieve?

Remote work has its advantages and disadvantages, which should be assessed depending on what goals we are trying to attain. We need to consider the criteria that matter most to judge the effectiveness of remote working. It is important to evaluate what outcomes we are aiming to achieve and to decide if remote work will help us reach our objectives.

When considering the advantages of working remotely, what information is significant?

Much of the talk has touched upon productivity, like measurable outputs, including lines of code, how quickly data is processed and precisely entered or the length of time devoted to conferences.

No one measure is perfect, so it’s possible to build a case for or against remote work by cherry-picking studies and prioritising them according to any number of given biases.

Selection bias is a particular issue, some individuals adapt to their home environments better than others when it comes to working from home. As such, there are vast differences between studies that focus on the amount of output compared to those concentrating on quality, both of which contribute to the disconnect employers and workers feel.

From the worker’s point of view, quantity-based studies show they are increasingly working more hours. However, employers prefer quality-based results, which sometimes show a negative outcome.

The hybrid approach offers a middle ground that blends the advantages of both worlds. Meanwhile, there exists a disparity between what staff desire, an above-average amount of remote work and what employers are willing to give. There is a rift in opinions as to how much remote work should be included.

As this has become such an argumentative issue, we must acknowledge that it's at least partly due to the demand for more power over their working circumstances by employees.

The Workplace Reset  

The most desirable results for employers and employees alike can be achieved if offices are structured to best suit their needs. Inflexible cubicles of the past are no longer suitable for today's diverse workforce, nor do they provide the benefits of being physically present in a workspace.

Redesigning and managing offices and altering attendance strategies can help to create a sense of community in the workplace, which is key to increasing productivity and assisting workers. It provides a platform for them to network and progress in in in their career, while also avoiding undesirable feelings of exclusion.

Although professional life should not consume our entire lives, it still occupies a great deal, approximately a third, of our time. Building relationships with colleagues is especially beneficial for those who have limited opportunities outside work or are new starters.

Employers must also admit that, for a while now, most jobs have been located in the wrong places. Most knowledge workers are typically placed in a sterile office campus or in the CBD and other bustling centres. Because it necessitates long commutes by subpar public transportation, which adds more than two hours to a day's worth of travel time, this type of job location is bad for both the employees and RTO.

Compounding the issue is that most downtown or CBD areas suffer from a wide variety of inner-city crime and grime issues. Despite how pessimistic this may appear, solutions are available, so we must invest the effort and resources necessary to correct these issues.

Purposeful Presence

Times have changed and employees' expectations have changed. In the current cost of living crisis, the employees undertaking the commute to the office are doing so at their own expense. 

Employers need to understand that they need to provide a workplace environment that is worth the commute for the employee.

As Tim Oldman of the Leesman Index puts it so succinctly “the cost of living has become the cost of working” 

The effort and cost of the commute have to be worthwhile for the employee otherwise this cost becomes a grudge purchase and one that might very well make them hitch a ride on the ‘great resignation’ bandwagon.

Whilst we are starting to move towards a ‘new normal’ we must accept that we are still in a transitional phase and a lot of water needs to flow under the bridge before we settle on a definitive solution to the Hybrid conundrum. 

Planning and administering these modifications will be more intricate than merely issuing a policy that forbids remote labour. Still, they have the potential to yield substantial benefits for both staff and employers in terms of better working conditions.

A workplace with collaborative decision-making between management and labour in determining working conditions is far more likely to foster productivity.

People  I  Place  I  Performance

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