The Great Renegotiation – redefining office work

16 June 2022
5 min read
The Great Renegotiation, redefining office work article image

To Resign or Renegotiate?

After the first wave of the pandemic subsided, many employers were eager to call their workers back to the office. They were surprised by the number of employees who did not return. The so-called ‘Great Resignation’ occurred because many workers simply did not want to return to the old normal. Many enjoyed working from home and found that they were just as, if not more, productive. Many workers were fighting burn-out and stress from the pandemic while others found that time away from the office helped them to decide to do something else.

Now, as COVID is becoming more manageable in much of the world, employees and employers are hashing out new terms of employment. We are in the middle of the ‘Great Renegotiation’ to determine what work will look like now and into the future.

Opposing Views

At one extreme of this renegotiation are some workers who are resolved to never make a commute into the office again. At the other extreme are some employers who are staunch in their demand to have all employees in the building for at least 40 hours every week.

But neither of these positions seem primed for widespread success. Exclusively remote work can lead to workers feeling disconnected from the workplace. On the other hand, full-time in-office is unappealing to many, and a non-starter for some workers who must care for others or have other demanding in-home obligations.

The majority of employees and employers want to find a sweet spot between the extremes – a middle ground that supports in-person collaboration and camaraderie in the office while also providing flexibility and balance for workers to attend to their non-work lives.

While the pandemic has brought these issues to the fore, workers were seeking flexibility in terms of working from home some of the time before COVID-19.

Redefining Work-Life Balance

Smart businesses help their employees manage the stress and burnout that lead to poor performance and resignations. Increasingly, employers recognise the importance of psychological well-being and support employees to manage their health. For example, we know that a daily commute can detract from your physical and psychological health.

McKinsey recommends that managers engage with employees to develop a set of expectations that may need to be tailored to the individual. Diversity and Equity must be taken into account in the digital realm as well as in the office. The goal is to ensure that all workers feel included and recognised while also giving them the flexibility to work remotely at least some of the time to attend to themselves and/or their families.

Employees may view their employer’s in-office requirements as a control mechanism, but there are real benefits to occupying the same space, and, despite the now obvious risks, breathe the same air. For one, many forms of collaboration are easier in shared space. Teams that are already established may find it more efficient to conduct online meetings some of the time, it is easier to build trust and develop goodwill and rapport in person.

Another benefit to in-office interaction is that formal and informal mentoring tends to happen more spontaneously in person. A remote worker might have to schedule time to ask questions whereas those that are in the office may ‘bump into each other’ and have the water cooler conversations that inevitably circulate information and build trust.

Physical proximity can boost collaboration and creativity. MIT’s famous Building 20 was not an aesthetic masterpiece, by all accounts, but it spurred incredible innovation in diverse areas such as high-speed photography, microwave physics and linguistics as well as the development of video games and audio speakers. Disparate scientists were thrown into the same physical space, and they regularly bumped into each other. The creative sparks flew. The building itself showed that, “Errant discussions…may even be the most essential part of the creative process.”

Technical Constraints

As we move forward to refine the hybrid model, one of the limiting factors is technology. Over a quarter of respondents to a MarketingWeek survey were neutral or not satisfied with virtual collaboration tools.

Another potential problem is cyber security. Working remotely results in more illicit file-sharing practices that can compromise the company’s information security. Overall, workers prefer the office for training or career development, to meet with clients and coworkers and to access certain technologies and data.

A Hybrid Future

One of the benefits of this new arrangement is that it is helping us to redefine work and productivity. We have long known that simply being in the office is not synonymous with productivity. There is a growing recognition that many jobs can be best accomplished with a hybrid format that requires some ‘office hours’ and includes remote options. The smartest companies are working with their employees to find optimal solutions for each role and for each individual.

The Great Renegotiation shows how, once again, crisis can lead to opportunity. In this case, the opportunity is to redefine office work. When done right, the hybrid work model can help everyone achieve their goals.

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