When the pandemic struck in 2020, remote working was thrust into the limelight, with organizations investing heavily to ensure workers could be productive from home. As we transition back to normality, business executives have struggled with the challenge of managing hybrid work, which now requires them to balance employee needs and wishes with the best interests of the organization from a financial, cultural, and operational perspective.
The ‘remote or hybrid work’ debate was in the headlines this month, when NYU’s Professor Scott Galloway, speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit, said: “You should never be at home. That’s what I always tell young people. Home is for seven hours of sleep and that’s it … You need to be out of the house.”
Galloway’s comment went viral, reigniting the debate over remote work, its social impact, and whether older generations (and management) are out of touch with the challenges and choices of Gen Z.
Despite worker pushback, leaders at top financial services are keen to get workers back into the office. JP Morgan, Citibank, and Goldman Sachs have all called employees back to work in recent months. More than half (58%) of Americans now work from home at least once per week, according to research by McKinsey. By 2025, 36.2 million Americans may be clocking in from the comfort of their home, according to an Upwork study.
In April, a team of economists from Harvard, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the University of Iowa found that remote work may negatively affect collaboration, on-the-job learning, and productivity because workers were less likely to receive feedback from peers.
The need for operational data
The problem is that ‘return to work’ edicts are largely not based on empirical data. There’s a pervasive suspicion among some senior leaders that if employees are not in the building, then they may be slacking off. This is what Microsoft’s Satya Nadella calls ‘productivity paranoia.’
The challenge with remote work is less likely to be around productivity, and more around the impact on employee engagement and workplace culture. Businesses need to also consider the impact of where their employees work on their overall well-being. Rather than focusing exclusively on productivity, it is these issues that should factor into organizations’ decision-making process about hybrid working.
If businesses are asking employees to return to the office solely based on a perceived perception of lower productivity or ‘productivity paranoia,’ then the decision making is misinformed. Leaders need to improve visibility into how each employee is performing and what working environment is best for them.
Trust the data
Scratch the surface and you will find a correlation between the absence of trusted operational data and the level of senior management concern. Some organizations are jumping to impose arbitrary back-to-office mandates in the absence of data and process around how they manage where people work.
By contrast, those organizations with access to data have the information at hand to make better choices about what the right answer is for them. In other words, it doesn’t need to be a problem.
It’s a classic example of when people feel out of control, they become insecure in their thinking. Whereas if organizations are confident about their systems and processes, and are on top of where the work is, then it is easier to be flexible about where people are working. For example, the data may tell you that a particular employee is not productive at home (for whatever reason), so being in the office is best for them.
Others may be different.
Being data-led to drive those decisions is key.
Strategy, not hope
There is a real dichotomy between those businesses that have cracked this and are in control, and those that are making decisions based purely on emotion because they feel powerless and out of control – if their people aren’t in the office, then they tend to fear the worst.
But with the right data and the system of managing work properly, organizations then have all the visibility and levers they need to make informed decisions on where the right place is to work for their business.
If an organization is not using data to inform policy on hybrid working, it is effectively a ‘hope strategy.’ They assume people work better in the office and are therefore dismissive of hybrid working.
Let data drive your decisions
There are two key opportunities for organizations that are making data-driven management decisions around hybrid working.
First, they can configure their business better and improve staff wellbeing because there won’t be the same battles around blanket back-to-office mandates that are based on C-suite paranoia.
Second, it gives organizations a potential hiring advantage in the context of scarce resource availability – if rivals are forcing all employees back into the office, then data-driven organizations can offer a better work-life balance.
Using data, however, does not create a binary outcome.
What it enables organizations to do is fine-tune processes because they have all the feedback loops and visibility on what impact hybrid working is having — and therefore can adjust based on their individual circumstances.
Ultimately, business leaders must focus on having the data to be able to make the right decisions. By using data to underpin their management processes, organizations can create a flexible strategy that can be tweaked as the business evolves, improving decision-making and ensuring working practices are always right for them.
This is a critical time for brands as they adjust to new ways of working. Organizations shouldn’t fall into the trap of productivity paranoia but rather focus on building a working environment that is right for your business and employees. One size doesn’t fit all.