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The 9-5 Office - Why I'm Backing the Alternative

17th Jun 2021
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The battle has commenced between those advocating more remote working after the pandemic and those wanting people to return to the office. Take this recent article on the BBC news website, for example, in which Paul Swinney, spokesperson for Centre for Cities, says he is “quite hopeful that we will see people return five days a week.” 

And what about Apple, where staff reacted to Tim Cook’s announcement that he expected employees to return to the office by launching a campaign pushing back against the proposals. 

There are those with a vested interest in getting people back into offices five days a week after the pandemic. Parts of the hospitality industry, for example, rely on the trade office workers bring. I don’t blame them for fighting their corner. But it’s important for everyone to realise that a return to old normalities isn’t going to be easy. 

The argument often used to support a return to the office is that working remotely prevents teams coming up with new ideas because those random interactions that happen in the workplace can’t happen. 

Let me respond by saying “poppycock”; not least because it’s a wonderful opportunity to use one of the most bizarre words in the English language. 

I’m not saying remote working doesn’t create challenges. It does. Like all change, the move to flexible remote teamwork is a journey. It requires people to step outside of their comfort zones, learn new skills and develop new behaviours. This takes time. 

I remember when my team first started working remotely, it was a challenge to get people to turn their cameras on and talk to each other face-to-face rather than by phone, or worse, email. These days, there’s daily office banter via chat and video, interruptions with questions and random sharing of ideas. I occasionally have to suppress the conversation by using my ‘do not disturb’ status. People adapt.

I know what you’re thinking. Why go through all the pain of change, when you can just go back to how things were? 

Well, apart from the fact that some people don’t want to return to the office, consider these arguments:

The Environment:
Several studies have shown that remote working can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One study suggested that to gain the same benefits achieved by people in the US alone working from home during the pandemic, you’d need to plant 91 million trees!

Retention:
As Apple’s example has shown, the idea that we can simply return to old normalities is flawed. It assumes that those for whom remote working works will happily switch back to commuting and being office based again. Forcing employees back to the office will inevitably lead to some finding more flexible opportunities elsewhere. (It’s worth mentioning here that the same holds true for any organisation tempted to enforce remote working; some people can’t wait to get back to the office.)   

Individual Opportunity:
Remote working can open employment opportunities to those for whom the traditional office set up doesn’t work. This includes those living in rural communities, which are often some of the most economically deprived parts of the UK (and beyond). My own team is almost entirely made of people who would not be working for us if we had a traditional city-based set up. We created opportunities for them and at the same time benefited from gaining access to a pool of largely untapped talent.

Rural Regeneration:
I’ve already touched on this but it’s worth mentioning again at a macroeconomic level. In many regions, the young are forced out of rural areas through a combination of poor job opportunities and high housing costs. Meanwhile, a lot of rural communities have become dormitory, only coming to life at weekends, which creates huge difficulties for small local businesses. Better access to high-speed internet, coupled with remote working offers a genuine opportunity to regenerate poor rural communities. You might think this has nothing to do with individual organisations; my view is that where we can make a positive difference, as with the environment, we should.
  
Recruitment Opportunities:
Organisations with flexible remote working do not have the same geographic limitations when recruiting. Their recruitment decisions can be based solely on talent and what an individual can bring to the team, not their location. 

Work/Life Balance:
This is the one that everyone focuses on, so I won’t dwell on it here. (And besides, I’ve seen my word count!) 

Contingency:
We don’t know when the next pandemic will come; hopefully not soon! What other surprises does the future hold though? Organisations with remote workforces are generally better equipped to adapt and survive the unexpected. Our first attempts at remote working happened out of necessity when our offices flooded in 2005 (despite being on top of a hill). In contrast to then, 2020 had virtually no impact on our ability to work as a team, or on the service we offered customers. 

Hopefully, I’ve shown the benefits remote working can bring to organisations, people and communities; to be honest, I could go on for hours about this and I'm happy to engage in friendly debate, so please let me know your thoughts below. :-)

If your organisation is going down the route of a more flexible approach to work and where we work in future, what about those new skills and behaviours that are needed to make it successful? 

Trainers' Library has a whole series of modules on remote team management, but I'd urge you not to stop there. Whether it’s team engagement, diversity, managing performance, communication or other behaviours, we have unique training materials that will help your leaders develop the skills they’ll need; whatever the future holds. 

Until next time…

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