What bosses really think about remote work

Leaning across their desk to ask a colleague a quick question, spontaneously heading out for a walk-and-talk brainstorm and knowing that everyone’s logged on to a stable Wifi connection. These are just a few of the reasons James Rogers, 26, loves managing their team from the office, instead of the kitchen table. 

“We as a business are very much office first, and personally I believe we can be a stronger workforce when based in the office full time,” says Rogers, a digital public-relations lead in the London branch of a British-American global content agency.

The firm started giving employees the option to return to the office part-time in April. “Our aim is to have as many of our team back in the office as often as possible in the coming months.”

Human-resources experts say Rogers’ attitude is indicative of a broad trend. Despite numerous global surveys, indicating remote working has been a positive experience for a significant portion of employees, and that many (though not all) want it to continue, plenty of bosses disagree.

In the US, a whopping 72% of managers currently supervising remote workers would prefer all their subordinates to be in the office, according to recent research for the Society for Human Resource Management, seen by BBC Worklife in July.

A June poll of UK managers for the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) showed that about half expected staff to be in the office at least two to three days a week.

In Sweden, data-driven employee engagement firm Winningtemp, which serves clients in 25 countries, says it’s already noticing signs of a back-to-the-office push, particularly in markets where there are high levels of vaccinations. “I see a lot of companies forcing it right now,” says founder and CEO Pierre Lindmark. “They start saying, ‘OK, now, you took the second vaccine, you need to be at the office’.”

All this is fuelling debates about why exactly bosses are turning their backs on remote setups faster than many experts predicted, what it means for the future of remote work and how it will impact on employees who want to cling to their pandemic working routines.

A need for control

Although the uptick in home working during Covid-19 proved that employees could be productive outside the office, human resources experts point out that many managers experienced a loss of control compared to pre-pandemic times. Reversing remote-working policies and promoting a back-to-the-office mentality may, at least in part, be down to a keenness to regain some control.

“If you meet people, you feel that you can have control,” says Lindmark. “You’re not judging people by just seeing each other on camera, you’re judging by seeing the productivity, seeing what’s going on [in the office].”

Now that in many countries, lockdowns are over and vaccination rates are high, he says bosses are making a more “emotional” choice to get everyone back to the office. But he warns this is often happening without them looking closely at individual or company-wide performance during their home-working phase, or having a strategy for how this will impact on employee experience.

“Managing a remote team is harder. It demands new skill sets. And a lot of people were thrown into it unready,” adds Maya Middlemiss, an author on remote working based in Valencia, Spain. “So, it’s not surprising in a way that we’re having a backlash and people who didn’t adapt well to that from a management point of view would much rather have everybody back.”

Other observers have taken a less diplomatic tone, with business and media blogger Ed Zitron recently claiming that many middle-managers are keen to claw back a sense of status. He says some simply miss the opportunity to look important as they “walk from meeting to meeting” and monitor what their teams are up to.

“While this can happen over Zoom and Slack, it becomes significantly more apparent who actually did the work, because you can digitally evaluate where the work is coming from,” he wrote in a June newsletter.

Unsurprisingly, managers themselves aren’t queuing up to share that perspective. But pro-office bosses like James Rodgers do accept that “more visibility” of those they line-manage is a core part of their pro-office mantra.

“Not so that you can micromanage and ‘keep an eye on them’, but so you can understand where they might need more support,” they argue. “It’s easier to discern whether a team member might be struggling with a task when they’re sat in front of you. You just don’t get that visibility when they’re sat 30 or 40 miles away from you in their own home.”

Aside from visibility, bosses championing a shift from remote working also tend to highlight the social and creative possibilities for office-based employees. For instance, ice-breaker chats by the water cooler, in-person inductions for new hires, team-building after-work drinks and spontaneous brainstorms.

“We did our best over lockdowns to try and be as creative and free-flowing as possible, but it’s pretty hard when you have to schedule a call for every single thing,” says Daniel Bailey, 34, CEO of a London-based footwear-research company that’s moving into an office in the city’s new Design District in September. “Working remotely has absolutely massive benefits, [but] I don’t think it’ll ever be better than being in one place together, for the creative process,” he says.

Kerri Sibson, director of the development company behind the new neighbourhood, says other bosses are prioritising a return to office spaces for their staff to be able to host and attend physical networking events again, or connect with other industry professionals in the same area. “New businesses need to find opportunities for growth that often come from these chance encounters,” she argues.

Out of sight, out of mind? 

Whatever managers’ motivations for shifting away from remote work, stating a clear preference for ‘visible’ employees raises important questions about equity in the workforce, if some staff are still working remotely, or spending a higher proportion of their time at home than others.

Pro-office bosses like Rogers are often quick to insist that businesses can and should work to ensure “there are equal experiences and opportunities for the team whether they are office based or not.” But the Society for Human Resource Management’s recent survey suggested that around two-thirds of managers of remote staff believe full-time remote work is actually detrimental to employees’ career objectives. A similar proportion admit to considering remote employees more easily replaceable than onsite workers.

“The adage, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ explains perfectly why this sentiment exists among people managers and it explains how deeply-ingrained the idea of face-to-face work is in our culture,” argues Johnny C Taylor, the organisation’s president and CEO.

Other research suggests some managers still struggle to trust employees who are working from home. Findings from an online survey of 200 US executives in August suggested they didn’t have full faith in a third of their staff to correctly utilise the collaborative remote technologies needed to make remote working successful. Earlier in the pandemic research for Harvard Business Review showed that 41% of managers were sceptical about whether teleworkers could remain motivated in the long-term.

Middlemiss warns there’s a “genuine risk” these kinds of attitudes towards remote office employees will amplify pre-existing biases, such as those linked to race, class, disability and gender.

Even before Covid-19, women were more likely to request flexible working due to caring responsibilities, for example, says Middlemiss, and are therefore likely to be disproportionately affected if companies prioritise retaining or promoting office staff.

Retaining top talent

On the flipside, employment experts predict that despite some managers’ resistance to remote working, they might simply have to make it an ongoing option as companies seek to keep and recruit employees.

“The pandemic has proven that employees can successfully work from home, and they want to continue this flexibility,” says Taylor. “Ultimately, benefits like telework and flexible schedules are critical to attracting and retaining top-tier talent, and employers are aware of this.”

“If you could work remotely, for one person, you can actually remote work for anybody else, including potentially employers not in your immediate area,” adds Middlemiss. “So, if you know now that’s how you want to live and work, it’s important to be aware that there could be lots more opportunities open to you.”

There is already overwhelming evidence of increased job-hopping as workers emerge from the pandemic with a sharper focus on what they want their work and home routines to look like moving forward. In the US, a new survey from PwC suggests that nearly two-thirds of workers are on the hunt for a new position, while figures from leading UK jobs site Totaljobs suggests that more than three-quarters of Britons are actively searching.

Managers who are continuing to champion remote working are quick to argue that their approach is already having a positive impact on recruitment. “We have had developers applying to work for us from France, from the UK, from Belgium. And that is because we have this flexibility in place,” argues Olga Beck-Friis, co-founder of a digital legal-advice platform based in Stockholm. “We currently have no plans to adopt a full-time back-to-work policy.”

Meanwhile, Lindmark at Winningtemp argues some of the managers who choose to return to the office full-time may end up reassessing their decisions. He says the switch away from remote working could have an impact on productivity levels and profitability, if staff choose to stay in their jobs, yet aren’t on board with their company’s strategy.

“If people have been home-working for a long time and they really enjoy that – coming in, they’re feeling that they are just controlled… they’re losing autonomy.” Instead, he argues bosses need to take a closer look at individual and team output and how employees are feeling to help co-create hybrid models that people are comfortable with.

“A flexible work programme… it has to work mutually for employees, employers and organisations alike,” agrees Taylor at the Society for Human Resource Management. “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. And that’s key.”

But in London, pro-office manager Rogers remains confident that other companies will come round to their way of thinking. “I do think there will be a large number of businesses who underestimate the power of having their workforce together in one space who may shift their initial stance on moving to remote working in the future,” they argue. “We found that the majority of our staff were excited about being back in the office together.”

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