The ‘back to office’ rush — is it wise?

The ‘back to office’ rush — is it wise?

800 371 Kamal Karanth

Are corporates adequately geared up to be back at the office or making a hash of it?

Quick Base, the 1 billion $ SAAS company, hired Ed Jennings as their new CEO this May. However, he is yet to visit their Massachusetts headquarters. That shouldn’t be surprising anymore. But still, I need to ask you this!

How many of you are itching to go to the office, sit in the cafeteria, and have a cup of coffee with your favorite colleagues? I am sure many of us are raring to go depending on the roles we play and the trust levels we have with our employers and colleagues. But the tone of the majority of employees globally and in India is of caution. Almost half of the employees polled by PWC in the USA recently said safety measures like mandatory testing and temperature checks before going onsite still don’t inspire confidence. Back home the survey by FYI recently highlighted that more than 93% of workers were anxious to return to the office on fear of their health being compromised.

Safety or Normalcy

So, where do we draw the line between the safety of employees and the enterprise need to declare a return to normalcy? Employers who house a large number of office workers are thoroughly confused.

When I heard that one of my entrepreneur friends had terminated their office lease, I thought the business must have been affected severely. However, when I spoke to him, he said, “I don’t want to risk the lives of my employees and their dear ones just because I feel there are advantages of being at the office. After all, in the work we do, most of us are still productive, and our work can still be done out from anywhere."

However, not every enterprise can carry out its work in the remote model. From Textiles to many manufacturing units where hands and legs do the job, physical presence is inevitable. However, for knowledge-based organisations and roles which can be worked from anywhere, what’s driving the rush back to the office? The recent outbreak of Covid, some even leading to death at a few large Indian enterprises, begs the question. Is India Inc making hash out of the return to the office? What’s playing out inside the enterprises which otherwise can continue WFH but still preferring to come back to the office?

 

The Real Estate angle

In the USA, Amazon and Apple have invested billions of dollars in sparkling new facilities that can house thousands of employees. Large Indian cities have also seen large enterprises and real estate companies making significant commitments to constructing huge sprawling offices. These investments will be weighing on the CFO’s mind when they are advising their CEOs. Some of the Enterprise facilities are so large that social distancing in the office might be possible by working in shifts or rostering of employees. Employers sure will take care of the hygiene and safety of employees in offices, but they might be ignoring a critical angle, the commute. Most employees have to use multiple modes of public transport to reach their place of work, and that increases the touchpoints. How will that safety be accounted for, and who shall be responsible for that?

Caught in the past

“Our CEO thinks all the leaders coming to the office give the right signal to our staff said a Technology company CXO. So, in the last few weeks, we are in the office and conducting our work from the confines of our cabins, he said. Even with my EA, I speak on skype, all my DRs are in their own offices, and we communicate on Zoom he continued."Can these video interfaces not happen from home?" I asked; He smiled and alluded that “our CEO believes that working in the office increases collaboration and we have limited voice in this matter.  In our internal surveys, most employees still don’t want to come but are forced to sign declarations about their willingness to report due to the nudge." The point here is not about who is calling the shots but how we are caught in the past about work processes.

Are some of the leaders refusing to change to the new way of working? Why should our past templates of getting together for whiteboarding, sitting across the aisle, be the only proven way of teamwork? Is it time for new hacks to ideation, teambuilding than physically being together? 

Culture

One of the arguments passionately and forcefully made by many leaders is that influential company culture is not built at the confines of home, and long term productivity cannot be assured in a WFH mode. Agree, that’s how we built organisation cult with leadership charisma in physical proximity. Isn’t the threat to life severe enough to think and discover new ways of building culture? For long, global enterprises have had distinct local identities despite touting certain common corporate cultures. Though the posters across the offices used the same words, the behaviors had distinct differences across geographies.  Maybe for a brief period, we can now take Employee Health Responsibility seriously and worry about our culture during peacetime?

Mental Health

There are new collateral damages for enterprises that might have saved travel costs and real estate expenses due to WFH. They need to be worried about the stress employees are going through due to job security concerns and working from home pressure. For example, some of the working mothers feel the burden has increased exponentially as work and family responsibilities have now doubled down at home. Some are cooped up alone in their apartments; a large number of young Indian IT workers are at the confines of their crowded PGs. WFH has also increased work hours at home, blurred the boundaries between office and home, moreover, work has stretched to weekends.  Most of our homes are not designed for WFH, and the lack of physical separation of work is increasing stress; This may not be good for our mental well-being if this continues.

Trust

ls getting employees to the office the best solution from the WFH stress? Would we not further increase the anxiety of safety concerns with Covid-19 rapidly spreading across the country?

For organisations which need their employees only to apply their cognitive ability, it’s essential to try newer methods to address engagement, collaboration, culture, productivity, and mental health. Getting workers to office, because that’s the only tool that worked in the past, will be endangering the lives of colleagues who trusted us as employers!

Post Covid leaders of the organization will be remembered for the empathy and compassion towards their colleagues. The rush to the office is thus avoidable!

This is a column published in The Hindu Business Line.

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