There’s a problem emerging in Australian workplaces that no one really wants to talk about, but many are worried about.
WFH is causing substantial issues for workplaces across the nation. A significant proportion of people have decided that there is no need to return to the office.
Discussions with managers and business leaders reveal the problems starting to emerge with WFH: an erosion of work culture, loss of communication, loss of productivity, and a growing perception that the nature of employment is changing.
RTO or Return To Office has been resisted by many employees. Indeed, on more than one occasion I have heard employees say, “I will never go back to the workplace. Zoom and Microsoft Teams will do me, and I like working from home.”
There is nothing in statements like these that recognises the workplace. Whilst employees have every right to have a preference over where they would like to work, a question arises. What kind of relationship do people have with their work, and the building of culture within the workplace?
The statement “I will never go back to the office” reduces work to a series of activities.
It does not recognise the nature of formal and informal structures and relationships.
Having been told what to do – they won’t be told what to do
Lockdowns. Restrictions. QR codes. Masks. Physical distancing. A wariness between people. None of these are things we grew up with. Extended lockdowns brought a default to caution, and this is both predictable and expected. The society we knew is not the society we now have.
This is also true of the workplace. Having been told what to do in the past, there has been a shift in ethos to “I won’t be told what to do.”
In a workplace this translates to: “If you would like me to come back to the office, then I need to be told why. I need to understand why I should spend the time travelling both ways, why the work cannot be done from home and how it can be justified.”
Whilst there are significant benefits in working from work on a personal level, people that I speak to report that their work takes longer and is quieter. Indeed, people never seem to be “off”. Deadlines routinely pass; perfunctory communications like someone missing team meetings and follow-ups on activities are forever within the purview of managers and team leaders.
Despite the use of Slack and Trello and Monday, many employees hide behind firewalls of silence, ‘poor connections’ and focusing on something else. “I thought we were working on XYZ today…?” or, “Wasn’t ABC was the priority…??”
Wellbeing and resilience
A further issue faced by managers and business leaders is the wild card of wellbeing. There is nothing like a pandemic to bring about a sense of uncertainty that affects how we navigate the world. This again is to be expected and is a normal response to stress, fear and a perception of danger.
In business, ‘resilience’ is a common buzzword. Resilience takes its base from managing vulnerability when there is no actual danger. Managers tell me that “wellbeing” is becoming a banner phrase for not producing. They feel hampered by an inability to call out a group of behaviours that are leading to disrupted timelines, disrupted workflows, poor communications and a lack of commitment.
Formal and informal structures
Managers know that within the workplace there are formal and informal structures. Formal structures and communications can be managed; informal structures less so.
It is within the informal structures, the ‘water cooler’ discussions and impromptu café stops at morning tea that many workplace issues can be identified. I have heard people say that they didn’t even know there were workplace problems disrupting productivity until two or three of them sat around chatting at lunch and wondered why certain things were occurring. These people tell me that problems now can’t even be identified let alone resolved.
Informal structures assist in creating alliances of people who like to work together. In a world where there has been a great discontinuity, building closeness, identifying and interrogating issues and finding solutions comes from such alliances. Alas this is being rapidly eroded.
Employees or contractors?
One of the strengths of enterprise is the passion and commitment the people who work in it bring. The ethos of an organisation is built around a sense of brand value and brand loyalty of those with the responsibility of creating the brand. When that ethos breaks down, there’s a shift in the nature of work.
The WFH/RTO standoff appears to be shifting people from a mindset of ‘employee’ to a mindset of ‘contractor’. They appear to want the certainty of regular pay and other non-financial benefits whilst restricting contribution in the way a contractor might do: it is just work.
Three or four days a week in office?
There have been many studies that show people can be just as productive over four days in an office as five. The fifth day is not a work-from-home day – it is a day without work. Productivity, team building, and shared vision appears to be better built when people work alongside one another rather than remotely.
A new paradigm
Perhaps a way forward for all businesses and work teams is a few days together to relearn new social structures, renegotiate how work will look and be done, and recreate a culture that is desired rather than arising by default. Spending time rebuilding, rather than simply reworking, will help to create the kinds of arrangements that work for all parties, built on shared understandings.