The UK Government have now issued instructions to the Civil Service to start forcing employees to come into the office against their will. They are expecting 80% of staff to attend their old workplace at least once a week on a rota basis. This makes no sense from a work effectiveness point of view. The only benefits will be a possible increase in trade for the cafes and sandwich bars that rely on passing traffic.
There is ample evidence that people doing “knowledge work” from home over the last six months have successfully adapted to the new way of working and in many cases are more productive. Civil servants working in Whitehall are the perfect examples of this type of work. They have no reason to be physically present in the same place at the same time as their colleagues unless it’s for a face-to-face meeting or a corridor conversation. But how necessary are these in the current circumstances?
If people can successfully work from home, what is the logic in getting them to travel on public transport in to a central location to sit in a socially distanced office with a few of their colleagues? Where is the evidence that they will be more productive or collaborate any better with the rest of their team? Some people would love to come back and that’s fine for them but don’t force everyone to do so under false pretences. We have moved on from the era when being in the office was the norm, to the age of hybrid working with people in different locations most of the time.
If 80% of staff come in one day a week it means on average 16% are in at any one time. Even if it’s organised differently so people are asked to all come in at once, most offices can’t run at full capacity because of the new layouts so only half the team will be in at the same time. Yet the logic of bringing people back in is that somehow they will work more effectively in the old environment because they are able to collaborate face-to-face, which they can’t do working remotely. So now a team meeting is going to consist of the people who happen to be in the building that day plus the others still working from home joining in by video. Not a good way to encourage collaboration.
One thing we have learned during the lockdown is that everyone is in the same situation. Managers and their teams have all been stuck at home and have joined in Zoom meetings, Teams sessions, Webex webinars, WhatsApp conversations and audio conferences. These have been successful in maintaining, and in many cases improving, teamwork. Now, in the Civil Service, holding a team meeting will mean that the people in the office attempt to collect at one end of the conference room table (something not recommended under Covid guidelines), so they can all be seen on video by the rest of the team at home. This will probably be a much worse experience for the people at both ends than their previous meetings with everyone on video. The sensible solution is for the people in the office to all sit at their desks and join in the video meeting on the same level as the remote participants, which of course they could happily have done from home.
This is just one of the many challenges facing managers in the Civil Service and elsewhere. How do you manage a team in a hybrid working world? How can you treat people fairly when some come into the office regularly and others work mainly from home? How much do you encourage people to meet face-to-face versus using technology to collaborate? Should you insist that everyone comes in at least one day a week and if so do you get everyone in on the same day? Can you take disciplinary action against someone who refuses to travel in because they, or a member of their household, feel vulnerable?
There has to be a good work-based reason to insist that people come in to the office once a week. For those people who can work happily and productively from home there is no reason. This is why many enlightened employers have said that they will not insist that their employees go back to the old way of working and are allowing them to continue to work from home indefinitely. In the private sector, some leaders have realised they will have a happier, more productive workforce and will be able to attract and retain the best talent if they are flexible in their approach to the location of work. This will give them an advantage over their competitors and help them to weather the economic storm. They will not be persuaded to turn the clock back just because government ministers insist that civil servants revert to outdated and inefficient working practices that unnecessarily expose employees to a dangerous virus.