Telecommuting or returning to the office? The math just changed again

Developer with laptop at night.

Developer with laptop at night.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Managers with big plans to bring their staff back to the office should prepare for disappointment.

The biggest reason? The balance of power in office politics has – at least for now – shifted. And this change has been in favor of the workers, not the bosses.

Here’s what’s happening: many knowledge workers have now spent a lot of time working remotely and have proven (at least to themselves) that they can be just as effective at home as they are in the office.

Additionally, this shift to remote working has improved work-life balance for many (but not all) by giving them a bit more flexibility. This did not go unnoticed.

On top of that, cutting out all that travel is good for both their bank balances and the environment. And as the pressure on the cost of living continues, all of this will be on workers’ minds when managers ask them to return to the office full-time.

It’s no surprise, then, that the call for workers to return to the office is causing anxiety among employees struggling with work-life balance and rising costs of living, as we reported the last week.

Many workers even think that if the boss wants them back in the office full time, they should be paid more.

And workers who reluctantly return to the office often find themselves stranded, sitting in sparsely populated offices video conferencing with managers who are still at home.

All of this means that for many workers, the calculus of returning to the office has shifted again, whether the boss realizes it or not.

While managers may be expecting staff to return to the office, they are facing far more resistance than expected. And don’t forget that there are plenty of opportunities for many (especially for developers and others in tech) to change jobs.

This is going to make life quite difficult for managers who continue to operate on old assumptions.

First, they should no longer assume that staff are only productive in the office (indeed, if so, it may be more a reflection of their lack of skills and empathy as manager than anything else).

Second, at least for now, they can’t assume they have the upper hand when it comes to deciding how and when work gets done.

And third, they shouldn’t assume that technology alone is the answer. Adding zooms and slacks will help get the job done for sure, but staff are more concerned with recreating the office culture and making sure they can get the recognition they deserve for the job than he did. And yes, it may seem like there is a contradiction between the desire to work remotely and the nostalgia for teamwork and corporate culture. There is one, and it’s going to be very, very difficult to solve.

But ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, managers shouldn’t assume that the old ways will ever return.

For many employees, the old habit of walking to work is long forgotten. For anyone who has entered the workforce in the past two years, the 9 to 5 office has never happened. Airbnb chief Brian Chesky said last week that “the office as we know it is finished,” meaning the office “has to do something that a house can’t do.”

Understanding exactly what it is and balancing the competing demands of managers and staff is the real challenge ahead.

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Maria D. Ervin