It’s now September 2022. This is the month that Apple has decided that staff must be back in the office for at least three days per week. Apple CEO Tim Cook is tired of remote work and has ordered that this move is essential to “preserve the in-person collaboration that is so essential to our culture”.
Many companies have explored hybrid work as the threat from the Covid pandemic has subsided. This has naturally led to a problem of coordination. How do you ensure that in-person collaboration can take place if people are flexible about when they are in the office? Many people are now posting on business networks, like LinkedIn, that they are back in the office, but just using Zoom or Teams all day.
Tim Cook’s message is that Tuesday and Thursday are essential office days, with the third day to be defined by team leaders. This has the advantage of enforcing some days where people will be working together, but does it fly in the face of the flexibility that workers now expect after two years of proving their value and productivity without enforced time in the office?
New research by Culture Partners indicates that corporate culture is what makes people both more productive and likely to stay with your company. Enforcing time in the office does not contribute to an improved culture. A September 2022 survey indicated that 6 out of 10 workers are “extremely likely” to leave their job if flexibility around hours and location is not maintained.
CNN reported on this survey by interviewing the Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners, Jessica Kreigel, who said: “Culture is what drives results. It’s not water cooler talk. It’s not whether you are playing ping pong at the office. It’s really about the experiences we co-create, which can absolutely happen on a Zoom or telephone call. We don’t need to be together in person. These experiences drive our beliefs about the work we do and whether we are contributing something valuable.”
The danger is real. Some leaders really believe that culture can only be created and nurtured through in-person contact rather than by creating a workplace experience that employees truly value.
The fallout is potentially immense. As this survey suggests, around two thirds of people are no longer prepared to accept an inflexible employer. If you want to start enforcing when employees have to be in the office then any loyalty will be discarded as people head for the exit and a new job with a more flexible employer. Even Apple has seen this with very senior employees leaving the company specifically because they have rearranged their life during the pandemic and enforced time in the office is no longer personally acceptable.
But this trend will apply at all levels. After two years of being able to see kids at breakfast and having the flexibility to manage family responsibilities around work, there are not many people that would seriously reject flexibility in favour of more time at the water cooler.
Companies that enforce this could also see a dramatic impact on their efforts to increase diversity as well. Women are likely to prioritise caring responsibilities over a return to the office so it’s easy to imagine a twin-track of employees being created – younger people (and especially men without significant family responsibilities) sitting in the office and everyone else working remotely. And proximity bias is almost certain if all managers are based in the office.
HR leaders can see the issues and there’s an obvious danger of reducing flexibility. Hopefully they can advise their executive teams before leadership creates an employee exodus. Treat your employees as adults. Respect their desire to maintain more flexibility and focus on building a positive culture that embraces everyone – at home or in the office.
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