The ultimate battle for the right to work from home

We are witnessing at the moment the ultimate battle for the right to continue to work from home. Permanently. Forever. And it’s everywhere. On LinkedIn and other social media, in webinars and internal comms platforms, small talks in office corridors or virtual corridors of Zoom and Teams.

I guess we imagined, that after the pandemic, the World is going to look completely different. The reality is that almost everything looks exactly the same. Of course, there are some changes to our everyday lives, mostly related to the increased use of deliveries and digital services, but it’s clear that we do not live in a completely different world compared to 2019. The notorious expression “new normal” proved to be obsolete. Just a silly buzzword.  

One of the most significant changes during the pandemic was a switch to working from home. Forced one. COVID contributed efficiently to the big debate about flexible working environments, leaving not much of a choice. Of course, only for the professions that were lucky enough to have that option. And many people loved it. It provided many opportunities to change and improve a lifestyle and well-being. Personally, I know many people who started working from different locations, including beautiful sunny islands or quiet, scenic mountains. I know people who moved their houses far away from their expensive home cities and saved a fortune without having to commute on a daily basis. Social media platforms are full of those stories. When kids returned to school, flexible working policies provided parents with the opportunity to organize their lives more efficiently and less costly. Taking 15 minutes break to pick up a kid from school, instead of paying for two hours of child minding services, sounds like a gift. Or bonus to your salary. Although, I’m quite sure that hardly any parent would subscribe again for home-schooling of any kind if that’s a precondition to current benefits.

In this era of employer branding hype, many companies were quick to announce that they will keep most of the working-from-home perks even after the pandemic was over. Or kind of over. Let’s say: when we stopped talking about it and some other affairs occupied the media. But now, almost a year later, many companies are starting to re-think that flexibility due to different reasons. Fully flexible working policies are slowly becoming 50-50% policies. Instead of picking days when you will be in the office, “Office Tuesdays” or team days are introduced. Or we can even hear that some companies are fully back to working from the office.

This is a big debate, and I do not want to contribute to the general discussion about it, but I was quite impressed with two angles that employees are using at the moment to fight for the case of working from home being the “new normal” that we should keep.

The first angle is the sustainability angle. For over 10 years now we have been witnessing the pressure to introduce the sustainability concept in business. Rightly, I would say. It was much needed. Almost all big companies are having their ESG strategy and agenda. Some companies are embedding it into their DNA, culture, and purpose. Some others are just doing it for the sake of reports they have to submit to shareholders or regulators. But, like it or not, it’s on the agenda big time. Now, with the attempt to push people back into the office, one of the legit questions that I frequently see being raised is: “Is daily commuting in line with the company’s sustainability agenda?”. Is spending fossil fuel to come to work every day something that we should do, if we don’t have to? The same question can be asked about business travel. Is it needed at all? Or it’s just there for people who are having difficult times being at home, alone, or with their families? Is this a simple but very efficient test for the companies, to check if they walk the talk when it comes to their ESG approach?

The other angle of the “attack” or better say “defense” of the flexible working policies is – a wellbeing issue. Another corporate buzzword from recent years. Well-being or mental health is, of course, major global challenge. After trending in media and literature, they managed to find their place in the corporate world as well. Companies are providing coaching and counseling services to employees, meditation and praying rooms, or at least – mobile apps that can help you to manage your stress or anxiety.  So, smart employees, who are able to articulate their arguments are saying: “If you are interested in my mental health, why are you forcing me to do things which are not good for it?” I have seen recently a post of a guy who is showing his photo of an exhausted, pale man in his mid-’30s from 3 years ago when he was commuting 3 hours every day, and a recent photo of a fresh, fit, smiling employee, who is able to work from home and to incorporate fitness and healthy nutrition in his everyday routine. I’m not sure if that was a genuine post or an employer branding campaign? If it was a campaign, it was a good one.

Photo by Max Vakhtbovych on Pexels.com

But the majority of people, keen to keep their work-from-home arrangement, are arguing for that old, overused phrase “It’s not important how many hours you work, it’s about the result you have”. While this might be correct in some cases, it is not always true. It is not in human nature to work more if they can work less. Very few people are eager self-starters and super motivated workers that require no supervision. After almost two decades of managing people on different levels and in different industries, and managing myself as well, I must say that majority will decrease their productivity if they are not supervised. And by supervised, I’m not saying just controlled. You can control people remotely as well, but I’m talking about long-term motivation, a relationship with your manager, or a connection that you have with a company that you are working for. Also, frequently, the quickest ones to claim that it is the result that counts, not the hours or working location, are the ones with average or below average results. Like you can find people who are talking about leadership all the time, being poor leaders in real life, or championing diversity and inclusion on social media, but actually giving a hard time or even mobbing their employees or colleagues in real life. Managing and leading people is complex. Doing that remotely is even more complicated. The idea that so many people could be good at managing remotely, at different levels of the organization, is simply – too ambitious.  

Perks of working from home could be re-calculated and added to the salaries of the employees, in order to compensate at least some part of the 10% inflation, especially with current fuel prices. But, I’m not sure that this will be the key to the argument. For sure, many different companies will find different approaches, ranging from fully remote working to coming to the office every day. I’m more curious about the “values challenge”. Is this a good test for companies to check if they are genuinely dedicated to their sustainability and mental health agendas? Or is this just another buzz?  

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