By Arjavi Indraneesh
Omicron has put a spoke in the plan by companies to switch back to normal office work. As the new variant threatens to unleash a ‘Covid tsunami’, as forecast by the World Health Organisation, several companies have already delayed the switch back and asked their staff to continue working from home. Following the decision by global giants such as Google, Apple, Ford and others to delay resumption of work from office, several Indian companies have also put their plans to resume normal working on hold. Vedanta, Panasonic, Cognizant, KPMG, BigBasket have all announced a wait and watch approach and the line is swelling.
The companies have a serious dilemma on hand. The big question is whether they should persist with the hybrid system of combining work from home and work from office even if things are back to normal after Omicron or any future variant, which is considered a given in the emerging situation, comes under control.
More than three-quarters of C-suite executives recently surveyed by McKinsey report that they expected the typical ‘core’ employee to be back in the office three or more days a week. While they realize that the great work-from-home experiment was surprisingly effective, they also believe that it hurt organizational culture and belonging. They are hungry for employees to be back in the office and for a new normal that’s somewhat more flexible but not dramatically different from the one we left behind.
But McKinsey also reported that In stark contrast, nearly three-quarters of around 5,000 employees the consultancy queried globally preferred to work from home for two or more days per week, and more than half wanted at least three days of remote work. Many employees also reported that working from home through the stress of the pandemic has driven fatigue, difficulty in disconnecting from work, deterioration of their social networks, and weakening of their sense of belonging.
According to McKinsey, organizations have learned many things, including how to be more productive in an operating model that was jerry rigged in a rush to meet the constant challenges and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis. Employers couldn’t stem the human tragedy of the pandemic, of course. But many worked with their people to figure out ingenious ways to keep their companies productive while caring for their workforces.
But the lessons learned during the pandemic only go so far in helping leaders address the next great experiment: hybrid working. A hybrid model is more complicated than is a fully remote one. At scale, using it will be an unprecedented event in which all kinds of norms that have been accepted practice for decades will be put to the test. Leaders are a long way from knowing how it will work.
McKinsey say the question of how many days in office per week are best is the most obvious one to answer, but it isn’t the only question, and it may not even be the right one to answer first. There will likely be a bevy of questions to address: What work is better done in person than virtually, and vice versa? How will meetings work best? How can influence and experience be balanced between those who work on site and those who don’t? How can you avoid a two-tier system in which people working in the office are valued and rewarded more than are those working more from home? Should teams physically gather in a single place while tackling a project, and if so, how often? Can leadership communication to off-site workers be as effective as it is to workers in the office?
Many employers the agency talked to spend far too little time acknowledging that building the muscles for a truly effective hybrid operating model could take years, not least because they are still learning what actually works in such environments. At a time when much of the workforce is experiencing significant discontent and overwhelming exhaustion, few employees see a return to an office-centric working model as a path to improvement, and given the success of remote working in the past year, employers will be asked to justify their decisions to change the arrangement. However, if leaders are willing to start from scratch, question everything, and make intentional decisions with a clear, evidence-based rationale, the current disconnect between them and their employees could serve as the creative tension point that will power a customer-focused, employee-led operating model designed for today—and tomorrow, McKinsey concludes. (IPA Service)