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Is it time for everyone to get themselves back to the office?

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

As New Zealand is about to move into level one, I believe businesses will only get one shot at asking their staff to return to the office. It’s obvious that a lot of us have enjoyed working from home – there are many advantages: flexibility, no traffic congestion, no having to get dressed up and hey you can eat what you like when you like. Fantastic!

To allow your staff to continue to work from home, I believe there are several downsides to consider from an employer’s point of view:

The workplace can provide a sense of community - a happy place for those who may not be enjoying their home life and others who may be lonely. There are also people with mental health issues; routine and support go a long way to their overall health and well being.

When staff work in close proximity, there is a natural sharing of positivity, technical expertise and company knowledge, and this is particularly important for junior staff who have a lot to learn. How do you propose to welcome new staff into the business and orientate them to your way of doing things? I’m not sure how ‘on the job’ training will take place effectively?

For me online meetings lack dimension. That ‘gut feeling’ of what is happening in the room is lost. Anyone with a quieter personality struggles to be heard and where is the sharing of ideas around the table? You can never underestimate the power of building relationships, engaging an audience and a good handshake to seal a deal.

Some staff are high performing, focused and expert at what they do – they work autonomously and are very loyal to the business, however there will always be a number of staff who require more direction and mentoring.

Quiet conversations between staff and/or managers in corridors can provide insight, for example there may be a staff member with a sick family member who needs support; great ideas are often born over a cup of coffee while unhappiness and resentment can be nipped in the bud.

Have you considered the confidentiality aspect? You may not be aware of the living situation of your staff (and normally it would be none of your business) but think about how easily your IP, client information or trade secrets could be passed on within the home space. A partner may work for your competitor, flatmates may be listening in to Zoom calls, or worse.

For those that have a mix of front-line and back of house staff, deciding to let some work from home, may not please the others. Fairness across all staff is a fundamental for businesses.

From what I am seeing and hearing at the moment, businesses may end up sitting on a rather hefty leave liability on their books over time – instead of staff applying for time off to ‘get a few things done around the home’ or going to their holiday homes for perhaps another long weekend, they’ll just be ‘working from home’. Yeah right!

Businesses generally put a lot of time and effort into creating a positive and inspiring environment – how will the team spirit be lifted or maintained with no central core and how do you keep your staff motivated remotely?

One thing is for sure – when you are running a business, there will always be challenges to overcome. On the surface it might seem less stressful (when you don’t have clear vision of the problems) but believe you me, they will be still be there, lurking under the covers. The quicker you can spot a problem and resolve it, the better the outcome.

Having had a taste of this ‘working from home’ lark, the workforce may now push for change. Regardless of the potential downsides, there may be a conscious decision by some to only work for employers that allow this. The run-on affect will be that businesses who don’t have an appetite for this new norm may miss out on the recruitment and retention front over time.

As a business owner or manager, if you are not sure which way to go, it may be a good idea to place a dollar each way. Perhaps let your staff work 1-2 days a week from home and be based at the workplace for the other days. Agree to it for a trial period of time and review after three or six months. Provide clear messaging on your expectations and outcomes and remember changing tack later won’t be easy.

I have a son who works in finance in London where office space is exorbitantly expensive. During his time in a large French bank, there was an arrangement where all staff (apart from juniors) were required to work from home for two days a week. While the staff had reduced travel days, it allowed the bank to hot desk while still retaining a feeling of community within the office. The less experienced received support and on the job training from the seniors. As a large business, this arrangement seemed to work very successfully for the bank, its team, and its clients.

When there is a focus on excellence within a business, a positive culture among the team and a desire to go the extra mile (or kilometre), clients will reward the business with respect and loyalty. Client relationships are everything!

While it is important to consider what your staff would like to do, perhaps you should also focus on what is the best outcome for your clients or customers, because without them there won’t be a business.Having outlined some of the pros and cons, I personally feel that if we go down the working from home track too far, it will be virtually impossible to reverse. Think carefully and move swiftly!

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