Home / Opinion / Views /  How employers could persuade employees back to office

A conflict is brewing in the knowledge sector. According to recent data from Gallup, more than a third of US workers who can do their jobs from home want to stay permanently remote. Meanwhile, with pandemic restrictions being eased in most places, organizational leaders realize that if they don’t soon persuade their employees to return to office, working from home will become a norm that will be hard to undo.

Each side has solid reasons to support their point of view. Employers believe that unless all employees come to a physical location, it will be difficult to build an organizational culture, and so a stable, long-lasting organization. They believe that when employees work in an office, their tendency to moonlight also comes down. On the other hand, employees believe that by working from home, they do not have to spend so much on expensive city accommodation. Savings from not having to stay in big cities could be substantial, more so for those at junior levels. Working from home also offers the added bonus of avoiding torturous commutes in big-city traffic.

Most events that come our way do not create much impact on us and are forgotten in very little time. But some events lead to what is known as long-term-potentiation (LTP), a process in the human brain involving a persistent strengthening of synapses. LTP leads to the formation of strong long-term memories. The covid pandemic, with its unique emotional and other experiences, is surely an event one cannot easily forget. It has changed the status quo of many sectors.

For example, in recent times, there has been a lot of discussion on where one should be watching a movie: in a theatre or on an over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform. Movie stalwarts like Steven Spielberg said that “movie theatres need to be around forever" and that audiences should be given “the motion picture theatrical experience". He so heavily supported the movie theatre side of the conflict that he even called for a ban on Oscar eligibility for films streamed online. But Spielberg has since reconciled to the new forces that emerged during the pandemic, it would appear. He has even signed a deal with OTT platform Netflix, which means more people will be watching more of his movies at home.

Is a similar reconciliation possible in the conflict between the knowledge worker and his/her employer?

This conflict is best understood if viewed from the employee’s perspective. Why should an employee come to an office to work? If organizations are asking employees to spend a large part of their salary on city accommodation and bear the pain of commuting in dense city traffic to attend office every day, they need to provide a clear answer to the employee’s question, “What’s in it for me?"

In the 2016 paper ‘Does Working From Home Work?’, a team of economists who studied the work-from-home experiment at Ctrip, a 16,000-employee Chinese travel company, found that at first the experiment seemed a success. Employee productivity increased and the company saved more than $1,000 per employee on reduced office space. But soon, the company was swamped with one complaint: loneliness.

For many people, the workplace is not about work alone. In a 2018 survey conducted by researchers at Olivet Nazarene University, 82% of respondents reported having at least one work friend. While some work friendships stay firmly within working hours, others extend beyond the 9-to-5 schedule and into “real friend" territory. For many people, their best support in times of distress comes from their office colleagues. In fact, claiming to have a “best friend at work" is a powerful predictor of workplace engagement. Unfortunately among those who work exclusively in remote locations, a dismal 15% strongly agree that they have a best friend at work. The emotional connections one develops at the workplace are among the top unspoken benefits of working in an office. Organizations could do more to build on this unique strength of office attendance.

Decades ago, the immediate effect of liquor prohibition in the US was the closing down of hundreds of restaurants that catered to alcohol-drinking customers. But within a short time, the number of restaurants in the US tripled, led by an increase in eateries that specialized in food that kids could enjoy with sober parents. As economist Tyler Cowen explains in his book, An Economist Goes to Lunch, that ban on alcohol sales pushed the US restaurant business to evolve, by putting children at the centre of American culinary culture. Similarly, organizations could use insights gained on employee behaviour during the pandemic to redesign workplaces and grant knowledge workers a better experience. They could begin this journey by opening more offices in smaller towns.

Moving to smaller towns would help employees reside closer to their places of family origin and also possibly save a lot on accommodation cost as well as commuting time. For the organization, this move will help gather employees under one roof, which would make it easier to build a strong corporate culture. It will also help decongest our big cities and foster the growth of smaller urban agglomerations. It is a win-win scenario for everyone concerned.

It has been more than two years since the rules of the working world snapped. How many corporate leaders will convert this challenge into an opportunity to reinvent their organization?

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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