The return to the office will be difficult

As employees are gradually able to return to the office, many questions are being asked about their state of mind, their expectations, and the plans of companies. If everyone understands that we are moving towards a return to normalcy, at least towards a less abnormal situation, no one seems to know where we are going, and worse, why we are going there.

This is evidenced by a PWC study conducted earlier this year, PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, entitled “It’s time to reimagine where and how work will get done“.

Indeed, it is a study from the beginning of 2021, so at the speed at which things are going, one might have thought that it was already irrelevant, but in fact it does not say anything other than what I can see for myself, with the difference that, unlike my observations, it is based on figures.

On the other hand, I would like to make a preliminary remark: this study deals with the American world of work, which we know has some specificities compared to what we know here.

Remote working worked well.

Whatever people say about remote work, it went well, even if I think that companies and employees were better prepared on the other side of the Atlantic.

In general, people found themselves more productive. Interestingly enough, it should be noted that things have improved over time. If after the “first phase” of remote working at the beginning of the pandemic this feeling was already present, with time and practice it has become stronger, proof that employees have also ended up adapting and changing their working methods.

But even for a remote work advocate like me, the numbers are still surprising. I don’t mind that the office is dysfunctional and that remote work has forced us to rethink some of our operating procedures, but still. To think that there is not a single type of activity that has not gone worse in remote work leaves me quite perplexed.

So everything went very well, at least for the American employees. It’s good news because it’s the only thing that’s certain and that employees and employers agree on.

US employees favor full-time remote work

When employees are asked about their wishes for the future, two things become apparent. The first is that there is no consensus on the number of days they should be able to work remotely. The second is that it seems to me that they are much more open than French employees, with a large majority in favour of 3 or more days and more than a quarter in favour of full time remote work.

Back to the office to preserve the corporate culture

The same cannot be said of employers, whose biggest concern about remote work is the preservation of the corporate culture. Here we have a completely opposite view of employees: where some say a minimum of 3 days of remote work, others say a minimum of 3 days in the office.

I would like to dwell a little on this desire to maintain a strong corporate culture and the fact that it seems to involve a presence in the office. It’s an understandable and commendable desire, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s not hiding something, even subconsciously.

I’ll come back to this question in detail in a future article, but I wonder if at a certain point we don’t confuse maintaining the corporate culture with keeping the employee immersed in a corporate environment so that he or she doesn’t think about anything other than his or her work, which I often summarize by talking about the difference between the need to belong for some and the desire to possess for others.

In fact, this idea came naturally to me when we look at what people think the office is useful for.

Yes to the office but not for the same reasons

To the question “what is the purpose of the office” if everyone agrees on the fact that it is a place to meet for customers and employees and to collaborate, the consensus ends there.

Employers see it first of all as a way to increase productivity, which is paradoxical when they tell us a few lines above that everything is more efficient in remote work than in the office. They also see it as a way to keep the corporate culture alive, as we have just said.

For the employees, corporate culture is not even mentioned. Do they have the feeling that it lives very well from a distance, do they not give it any importance or do they make the difference between a business culture that lives and a business that suffocates them… we will never know.

I am also pleasantly surprised that the subject of data access security is on the minds of employees.

The last point neglected by employers but valued by employees is the usefulness of the office for everything related to training, proof that in terms of training, there are things that do not go as well as people say at a distance.

The great confusion of the return to the office

What can we learn from all this? That US employees and employers are much more positive than their French counterparts, but we knew that a long time ago. I also think that in terms of culture and practices already in place, the step was less high for them.

However, if everyone understands that the return to 100% in the office will not be possible, no one agrees either on the formula to adopt or, especially, the reasons for adopting it.

But, once again, the criteria that an employee may need or want to be at a distance and how often are so numerous and personal that it seems complicated to me to envisage a model that would apply uniformly to all and all the time. However, this is what many are trying to do.

Image : Remote work by via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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