Relations between employers and employees over the right to flexible working are showing signs of strain, observes Tony Gregg.
When US online retailer Wayfair announced over 1,600 redundancies in January, executives told staff that those working remotely were likely to be at greatest risk, it was reported.
Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs, Meta and Amazon are among the firms laying down stricter back-to-the-office mandates.
This reflects some of the conversations I’m having with business leaders on this side of the pond. A common complaint is that the balance has shifted too far towards remote working to the detriment of creativity and productivity.
One chair of a large Plc recently told me that their business has tired of trying to coax staff back by offering incentives such as free breakfasts and has started to make it a requirement to work a minimum of three days a week in the office. Enough is enough is the thrust of this new, harder-line approach.
“I wonder whether part of the reason bosses are clamping down on home working is because they feel they have lost control of their teams?”
A mix of home and office working has been cemented as normal following the pandemic. Although many retailers have started specifying a standard number of days in the office, until recently, most haven’t followed through with strict mandates.
It doesn’t surprise me that some businesses are looking to get tough with employees who want to retain their right to work predominantly from home. Although studies examining the effects of remote work on productivity have mixed results, the idea that creativity is best unleashed in an environment where people are physically connected makes sense.
The entrepreneur and TV personality Sir Alan Sugar made this argument in a recent BBC Breakfast interview when he suggested home working was bad for morale and learning. “I know I learn from being with other people in an office,” he said.
The real-time exchange of ideas is especially important in a competitive and dynamic sector such as retail. But I wonder whether part of the reason bosses are clamping down on home working is because they feel they have lost control of their teams?
Those who previously worked exclusively in an office environment may not be equipped with the skills to manage a team remotely. Just as working remotely is a specific kind of discipline, so is leading remotely. It requires a more carefully considered approach to people management, coaching and culture than an occasional check-in over email.
Retail leaders should also ask themselves whether they’ve put enough work into making the transition back to the office feel appealing to staff. Have those complaining about a lack of productivity and creativity given serious thought to how to unleash those qualities on the days when people are together in person? If I’m accustomed to working remotely, do I want to spend time and money travelling to and from an office each day only to sit at my desk for eight hours doing work I could just as effectively do at home? It’s easy to see how resentment can take root.
“For all the people who have embraced the benefits of flexible working, there are plenty who yearn to return to a vibrant office environment”
If business leaders want to encourage people back to the office they need to give them a purpose for doing so – and I’m not just talking about the free food (though it always helps).
When the team is together, make sure the time is planned thoroughly and used productively by giving people the opportunity to do things that simply aren’t possible, or are less effective, in a home environment – like participating in group brainstorming and breakout sessions, inviting people for one-to-one catch ups over coffee and holding regular team away days.
For all the people who have embraced the benefits of flexible working, there are plenty who yearn to return to a vibrant office environment.
Businesses that show they understand the needs of those in both camps will attract and retain talented people.
Blanket back-to-the-office mandates, on the other hand, will do more harm than good if they drive good people into the arms of more enlightened rivals.
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