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Human Resources

Why forcing people back to the office as the economy slows is misguided: identify win-win solutions

Published 9 June 2023 in Human Resources • 6 min read

Employees are coming under increasing pressure to return to the office full time. But could organizations benefit from a more flexible approach?

The leaked memo from top executives at JPMorgan Chase made headline news: JPMorgan is ordering its managing directors to be in the office five days a week, or else. 

“Our leaders play a critical role in reinforcing our culture and running our businesses,” the biggest US bank’s operating committee wrote. “They have to be visible on the floor, they must meet with clients, they need to teach and advise, and they should always be accessible for immediate feedback and impromptu meetings.”

The memo underlines a battle to bring workers (or in JPMorgan’s case, leaders) across sectors back to the office, as companies review their flexible working policies following the COVID-19 pandemic. Three years after remote or hybrid working took off, this remains an important management challenge, with most companies still trying to figure out the right approach. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, will now require employees to return to the office at least four days a week, in a bid to encourage collaboration and training.

Growing tension between managers and workers

And the stakes are only getting higher, as the darkening economic backdrop heightens the tension between managers (who generally say they want more in-person collaboration, camaraderie and mentorship) and workers (who value remote work to lower the risk of burnout and improve work-life balance). Often, the real reasons also include managers’ own insecurities and need for control.

When profits were good, there was a fierce battle for talent at banks and other businesses. But as hiring has slowed, employees have lost much of their leverage to negotiate remote working arrangements.

In all decisions concerning work and the way of working, it is important to keep all three elements of efficiency, effectiveness and quality-of-life in mind.

It would be a colossal mistake, however, for managers to use the shift in the power dynamic to force their will onto staff. If we keep making this a game of power, everybody loses. But if managers enable employees to retain some of that pandemic-era flexibility in working practices then, overall, everybody is likely to benefit in terms of increases in efficiency, effectiveness and quality of life. In all decisions concerning work and the way of working, it is important to keep all three elements of efficiency, effectiveness and quality-of-life in mind. Working from home one or two days a week, in many cases, contributes positively to all three elements.

This is why it doesn’t make sense to have one-size-fits-all orders to go back to the office full time. That is because there are too many differences in people’s individual job context for one-rule-for-all. Moreover, it is likely to harm the workforce, risking a stream of staff departures and sowing discontent. JPMorgan and others including Elon Musk at Tesla were wrong to order workers to show up full time.

The mandates are likely born out of justifiable frustration. Unfortunately, some employees have abused the option to work from home and think they can work part-time but on full-time pay. But being physically present in the office does not necessarily equate with being more productive. Wherever a person is, the antidote to manager nervousness is employee accountability. If employees make no attempt to share voluntarily and proactively what they are doing on those days when they work from home, then bosses’ suspicions are left to run wild.

The importance of personal responsibility

Everyone needs to take personal responsibility to make hybrid arrangements work. That could include a quick email to the boss and colleagues explaining what you will be working on and when you are accessible, as well as an email at the end of the day summarizing your tasks completed when working remotely. That is likely to help secure your position at a time when employment is becoming more uncertain.  

But while being back in the office full time makes no sense, neither does working fully remotely. There are good reasons to have people together in one location. Anecdotally, many companies have found that it improves the speed of decision making, and can spark spontaneous learning, creativity and innovation. Being together in person is also vital to building and strengthening culture, as well as loyalty and connections.  

“For simple conversations and check-ins, Zoom works just as well as being in person. But for anything else and in particular collaboration and onboarding, the office is the place to be.”

On the flip side, evidence is beginning to emerge that remote work can in some cases improve output, with one study showing that the productivity of call center staff increased 10% when they worked from home during the pandemic. But another paper showed the opposite: that productivity shrunk by 8% for graduates working in teams at an Asian IT company who were abruptly sent home at the onset of COVID.

There was no randomized control group, so it is hard to assess the study’s results – and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Managers are going to need to go off on their own anecdotal experiences to find the best approaches for their teams.

For simple conversations and check-ins, Zoom works just as well as being in person. But for anything else and in particular collaboration and onboarding, the office is the place to be. The important thing for managers to do is to ensure that when you do get people back into the office, you’re doing it for the right reasons. That may include coaching, mentorship, idea sharing and coworking. The offsite is the new onsite.

Making time in the office worthwhile

There is little point in having your team together on a day when everyone is completing individual tasks, which can be done just as (if not more) effectively at home, where there may be fewer distractions. And yet many of us still do it, underlining the importance of better coordination between teams.

It’s ultimately the manager’s responsibility to make the time in the office worthwhile. In doing that, it can help to stress the individual benefits in terms of building great connections with your colleagues. Take a carrot, rather than a stick approach.

And organizations need to place trust in their managers to find the correct balance, whether that’s two, three, or four days together a week, or any combination over a month. The important thing for managers to do is to involve the team in the discussion, and come up with a policy that works for everybody, rather than making decisions in an ivory tower, like Musk has done. A policy that works for everybody needs to recognize that people have differing needs and preferences.

More than anything, managers are going to need to recognize that hard-and-fast rules are largely ineffectual, something that JPMorgan’s executives are likely to find out the hard way. 

 

Authors

Robert Hooijberg

Professor of Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Robert Hooijberg is Professor of Organizational Behavior at IMD. His areas of special interest are leadership, negotiations, team building, digital transformation, and organizational culture. Before joining IMD in September 2000, Professor Hooijberg taught at Rutgers University in their MBA and Executive MBA programs in New Jersey, Singapore, and Beijing. He is Program Director of the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives and the Negotiating for Value Creation course.

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