A heated debate is raging in corporate boardrooms around the world to bring workers back to the office. After more than two years of pandemic-forced remote work, many CEOs are looking for in-office workers. Others have decided that their employees can work from home as long as they want.
Both sides have compelling arguments, and the corporate world is at a tipping point. “Back-to-the-office” executives say remote work is subpar for everyone: employees; Companies and communities. They warn that in the medium term, remote work will reduce economic growth and innovation. They point out that making remote work sustainable is a fundamentally different equation, with different risks for organizations.
“Remote work” executives, on the other hand, describe self-examination as employees seek improved work/life balance and changing priorities during the Covid-19 pandemic. These advocates point to metrics that show productivity hasn’t suffered over the past two years, and remind us that they’re still engaged in a war for talent. If remote work is what it takes to attract and retain the best, so be it.
After weighing both of these positions, we’ve come to the conclusion that there are some downsides to telecommuting and its impact on employees — especially those just starting their careers.
While young workers value the flexibility of working remotely, they pay a high price for it. Critical on-the-job training, informal, face-to-face counseling, and face-to-face mentoring help them get going. These early years are the foundation of a young worker’s career. You will develop technical skills, build a network and learn how to negotiate and navigate organizational complexities. If they are not physically fit, their ability to successfully adapt to the corporate culture and find their career path may be impaired.
Even more experienced workers are affected by remote work. First, their performance was not properly evaluated in virtual meetings. Everyone migrates to an undifferentiated average without sufficient individual feedback. Second, and perhaps worse, employees often struggle to draw the line between work and personal life. Many surveys underscore this point, noting that meetings are becoming more common than they should be, and that people find themselves answering emails in the middle of the night. Third, their work as managers has become more complex, especially in integrating newcomers and managing professional development. This increases the risk of further burns.
In a competitive corporate environment, where maintaining a technical edge is key, only extraordinary teamwork and the exchange of knowledge and experience across generations allows a company to excel. This interaction is best achieved physically. Face-to-face meetings work online to a point, but not gathering in a conference room where ideas are discussed and confronted until a solution is reached.
More than money
So how do companies want workers to return to the office? Employers must give a reason – not an order.
While it is important to address the challenges surrounding transportation and maintenance, the larger issue is necessarily the “definition.”
In his epic memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” author Viktor Frankl showed that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. Locked in their homes during the outbreak, many workers found this insight. They asked their company or work to give them meaning in their lives.
“ Workers today are not going back to BS jobs. “
Nowadays, the main responsibility of a CEO and senior management should be to create a meaningful workplace. This requirement begins with a corporate strategy agreed upon by all employees. Everyone needs to understand how they fit in, why their role is important, and how it relates to the rest of the company.
Unfortunately, most business strategies today fail to answer the most important questions: Why do we exist? What is the purpose of our business? Why is it useful? These are critical questions that need to be answered simply and objectively – not just by senior management, but by every manager in the organization.
Every position in the company should be meaningful and allow for personal growth and professional development. Each role must be examined to see if it passes the definition test: does it carry real responsibilities? If not, the work should be revised or removed. This has been one of the crucial lessons of the past two years. Workers today are not going back to BS jobs.
Organizational leaders must navigate a new set of challenges that require them to rethink how they onboard and integrate newcomers. In addition, organizations must transfer experience and technical knowledge across generations and maintain a sense of ownership among employees.
A hybrid approach where employees spend most of their time in the office minimizes many new risks while maintaining flexibility for employees. We believe that many companies will eventually conclude that maintaining corporate culture and technology in the long term requires more physical presence in the office, but most importantly, giving employees meaning in their work.
Ramon de Oliveira is a director of AXA. George Stansfield is Deputy CEO and Chief Executive Officer of the AXA Group..
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