Back-to-office plans fall flat amid arbitrary rules, lack of communication

Back-to-office plans fall flat amid arbitrary rules, lack of communication

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jamie Burke was happy with her job. Working in property management, the extroverted Vancouverite went into the office every day, took meetings in different buildings and attended networking events.

When the pandemic hit and her job became remote, Burke struggled at first. But she grew to love the flexibility it afforded her. By the time her employer was asking people to come back to the office more frequently, Burke didn’t want to give up her new-found freedom.

She left that job in 2021 and tried several other roles before launching her own business. In each new role, she found herself clashing with hybrid work policies that were more rigid than she had anticipated. That’s how she realized she wanted true flexibility, not just a part-time office job.

“I really wanted the agency to be able to choose the work style that was going to work best for me.”

Burke is one of many workers for whom the pandemic introduced a whole new world of work, and for whom the back-to-office wave has felt forced.

“The pandemic essentially transformed work as we know it,” said Graham Lowe, a workplace consultant and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.

“It showed millions of Canadian workers that they could actually work remotely, and that there were a significant range of benefits from doing so.”

It wasn’t a universal experience: just over a third of Canadians were working from home in mid-2020, according to Statistics Canada, depending hugely on industry. Many essential workers and low-paid employees continued going to work.

Still, experts predicted hybrid work models would persist after the pandemic, and more businesses said they planned to offer at least some of their employees the opportunity to telework after the pandemic, Statistics Canada said.

Many companies are now asking — or telling — their employees to come back to the office, at least part-time. But many workers, especially those who moved away or made other big changes, are reluctant, highlighting a gap in how employers and workers think about the change.

Experts say after the major shift in work culture prompted by the pandemic, employers on the whole aren’t approaching hybrid work in a way that makes sense for their workers or their businesses.

The big question hanging in the air post-pandemic is whether working from home is a right or a privilege, said Linda Duxbury, a chancellor’s professor of management at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. Many employees have come to believe that it’s a right, but she disagrees.

That’s not to say remote workers don’t enjoy cost savings and other benefits, said Duxbury, but those aren’t always benefits that translate to their employer.

In surveys, many employees say they’re more or equally productive at home compared with the office. But research shows that isn’t true for everyone. Some put in longer hours, said Duxbury. Many are actually less productive. Many struggle with their mental health when working remotely, and it can be harder for younger, newer employees to connect with colleagues.

“The research that’s coming out right now says what’s really important to trust, to collaboration, is face to face,” said Duxbury. “Not all the time, but sometimes.”

But arbitrary policies and requirements to be in the office miss the mark, Lowe said, and they may be jeopardizing those goals for the sake of having a direct eye on people.

Flexibility can also increase job satisfaction and engagement for workers, said Lowe — which are “major corporate goals in all kinds of organizations across this country.”

Nola Simon, a consultant who calls herself a hybrid/remote futurist, thinks the tide started to turn at the beginning of last year, when big, influential companies started enacting return-to-office policies.

In the U.S., the charge is being led by major employers like Amazon, she said. Amazon’s return-to-office policy prompted a protest outside its headquarters, and recently the company has been asking some of its corporate workers to relocate so they can come to the office. Other names in the U.S. making headlines for their return-to-office push include Meta, Zoom, and Goldman Sachs.

In Canada, the big financial firms tend to lead office trends, said Simon. Earlier this year, RBC told employees they needed to work from the office three or four days a week while employers like BMO and Sun Life have invested in new, reimagined office spaces, perhaps hoping to draw more people back to their desks.

But Simon says there seems to be a major disconnect between what workers want and what their employers are pushing for. When asked why people need to come to the office, employers use vague terms such as innovation and collaboration, and it doesn’t ring true with workers.

What it’s often really about is trust, said Simon: “They believe that if you can see people, you can lead people.”

While Duxbury characterizes the en-masse shift to remote work in 2020 as a “disaster,” with management unable to handle remote teams, people inundated with childcare duties, and many without a proper home office, she thinks the back-to-office wave has been just as disastrous.

In many cases, she said, organizations seem to have picked the number of days out of thin air.

In a May report for the Future Skills Centre, Lowe and co-author Karen Hughes found about half of workers in Canada who worked remotely at some point during the pandemic had been consulted by their employers on future working arrangements.

Among those who were consulted, job satisfaction was high, and they were less likely to seek a new role elsewhere.

Lowe said employers need to have a two-way line of communication open and collect data on remote and hybrid work in order to truly understand its impact on workers, management and the whole organization.

When requiring employees to come in on certain days, Duxtury said employers should ensure that those days are shared by teams so people benefit from being together.

She advises employers to begin by looking at the job itself, not the person, when trying to determine whether it should be done remotely or on a hybrid basis.

Whether or not the new normal of remote work is what many envisioned, things have definitely changed.

“What’s changed, really, is the normality of the conversation about the need for flexibility,” said Simon. “You don’t necessarily need to explain in large detail about why you can’t come to the office that particular day because you’ve got a conflicting  doctor’s appointment or whatever … there’s just more acceptance and understanding that life happens, and we can work through it.”

Lowe thinks we aren’t yet on the other side of the major shift in work culture forced by COVID-19.

But he is hopeful.

“I think that as more companies document their experience with remote work and various forms of hybrid work, and communicate those findings … we’ll be better positioned to make good decisions about what the best arrangements are.”

— With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2023.

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