The days we work from home are numbered but is the great return to office inevitable?

Companies such as Apple are asking their employees to return to the office in September

Office workers at their desks in London. PA Wire
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Organisations all over the world are wrestling with the issue of what the future of work looks like.

The points of difference between those who imagine a hybrid week, those who want to work from home five days a week and those who seek a total return to the office seem to grow with every passing month.

Earlier in the pandemic, many companies dipped their toes in the waters to encourage employees back to the office, only to be greeted by new waves of infection that made it impossible. Some of these same organisations are now trying once more to get employees into workplaces for more of the time, with mixed results.

These efforts reveal plenty about how contested this space has become.

Apple Inc, for instance, wants its employees back in the office three days a week from September 5, with Tuesdays and Thursdays being nominated as in-person days and with the third day being flexible. What has been described as a small group of staff are pushing back saying they want working arrangements that “are best for each of us” rather than an imposed arrangement.

Employers often still envisage one way of life, employees imagine another

Only time will tell if that group represents the feelings of a larger silent majority or if they are the outliers. Labour Day, the annual US holiday that this year falls on the eve of Apple’s grand return, will feel especially consequential for some.

In the UK, a government minister has been running a sustained campaign to get civil servants back into their workplaces after long periods of working from home, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister of state for Brexit opportunities and government efficiencies, made surprise visits to government offices earlier this year to call out absentee workers. Last month he mooted a plan to sell off a suite of “half-empty” government offices that were underused because of persistent WFH protocols. But if remote working represents the future, who will buy these prime office sites anyway?

Some other employers are reported to have installed monitoring software on the computers of remote workers to measure their productivity, which is the weaponised front line of the future of work. By comparison, punching the clock seems a twee artefact of a bygone era.

All over the world employees are pushing back on multiple fronts.

The great resignation of 2021 has turned into quiet quitting this year. Trend spotters also say some workers may be juggling multiple full-time jobs while working from home. This is not so much the “gig economy” as the entire festival line-up.

More generally, a significant chunk of the workforce is happier and self-identifies as more productive at home in their regular job. The Economist magazine estimates that one-third of paid working days in the US are undertaken at home. A Hays study in the UAE this year found that 40 per cent of companies had staff back in their workplaces for the entire working week.

This system has well-known cracks, of course.

The connectivity tools that have allowed for an easy mass transition to remote working are also the same platforms that can serve to create superficial connection and check-in rather than meaningful collaboration. Remote working also creates organisational culture challenges and companies that “do hybrid” may still be operating on an approximation of the emergency footing they began when the giant WFH experiment started in early 2020.

Remote workers will counter that they can deliver better work from home, free from the stress or hassle of long commutes to work or the burdens and expectations of sitting in an office with a bunch of co-workers.

But all of this is the argument and counter-argument of the discourse.

The reality is that hybrid work remains a coda for the idea that employees are open to coming back to the office but won’t and for employers to talk about flexibility while preferring to have more rigidity evident in the working week, which is where Apple finds itself. Employers often still envisage one way of life, employees imagine another.

So how does the stalemate end? There is no easy answer.

Like any generational negotiated settlement, it will require dialogue and compromise. The assumptions about where work takes place that were codified in old contracts will need to be fashioned into new agreements.

In the world of diplomacy, peace deals are often hard fought and require truth and reconciliation from all sides. Mandated solutions can generate short-term cessations of conflict rather than lasting agreements.

It may be that the process proves impossible or that the current conditions persist.

If they do, the pushback from the employer side will probably arrive in the form of more stringent performance-linked appraisals or via further efforts to define what a day’s work represents through data-driven answers that quantify output.

Soft skills, once regarded as the best way to navigate the difficult world of the workplace, may decline in importance in such a scenario, replaced by the hard currency of data and what output has been produced.

Mandated solutions may prompt a further pivot from employees towards remote working opportunities in the short-term, as workers chase flexibility and the freedom to set their own terms via new opportunities. But will that prove satisfactory in the longer term as the pandemic fades into the distance?

Apple’s deadline will whoosh by next week, but the broader issue of the future of work remains unresolved – for now.

Published: September 02, 2022, 9:00 AM