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Expert commentary: In the new world of work, the office should be a tool, not a destination.

Dr Sven Brodmerkel.

More than two years into the pandemic, businesses and employees are still wrestling with the question of how to get back to work. While some organisations might want to return to the old way of doing things, remote and hybrid working is re-writing the rule book and changing employee expectations – at least for all of us who don’t work in manufacturing and so-called ‘frontline’ services.

For example, a recent survey of over 1400 Australian ‘knowledge’ workers conducted by Swinburne University of Technology revealed that less than 25 percent have returned to working in the office full-time. Almost 25 percent work remotely full-time, with the remaining 50 percent working in hybrid mode, either fully flexible or partly flexible. Prior to the pandemic, less than 30 percent of Australian knowledge workers had the opportunity to work remotely for any part of the week. And when asked for their preferences, the survey responses paint a clear picture: Less than 20 percent prefer working full-time in the office, 23 percent want to work full-time remote, and over 50 percent wish for some version of hybrid work.

But does this new world of work actually work for all parties involved? An international team of economists – including researchers from Stanford University and MIT says it does. The ability to work from home increases employees’ happiness, which significantly reduces quit rates. It supports diversity and inclusion, since employees from underrepresented groups often feel more comfortable taking part in discussions and conversations online. The same goes for introverts. And, last but certainly not least, flexible work arrangements increase productivity. Even though data suggests that employees sometimes work less hours on the days they work remotely, they make up for it throughout the week or on weekends. That seems to be a price many are prepared to pay for the increased flexibility.

So, a win-win situation all around? Not so fast! What about all the extroverts who thrive on social interaction? And what about the so-called Generation Z, who seem to be the least in favour of working from home? How to integrate and mentor these workers who are early in their careers? How to be fair when a workplace has both office as well as frontline workers? And is the fact that remote and hybrid work is favoured by minority groups not an indictment of traditional office culture? Remote and hybrid work surely cannot be the answer to inclusion issues.

What seems good in theory can, in reality, pretty quickly turn into a potential minefield causing disappointment, resentment and lost opportunities. What to do? As so often, there are no clear-cut answers. But one important mind shift might be helpful here: As a manager or business owner, try to regard the office as a ‘tool’ and not as a destination.

As Harvard professor Tsedal Neeley observes, there is still a tendency to think of the office just as a physical meeting space where employees show up more or less by default, either full-time or on some kind of flexible schedule. But seeing it as a ‘tool’ encourages a deeper and more complex perspective: If it is a tool, what is it good for in your business’s particular circumstances? How can it serve as a social space, and how often is it required to do so? What specific types of social interactions does it support? How exactly can it help foster a more inclusive workplace? And how in particular can it amplify serendipitous creative interactions and innovations?

Answers to these and similar questions can guide managers and business owners towards an individual and transparent strategy that is more likely than the old ‘office as a destination’ approach to accommodate different preferences while at the same time supporting productivity and effectiveness. Finding the right strategy requires trial and error, but the rewards can be significant. There is, after all, a reason why the Productivity Commission calls this the ‘second wave of work experimentation’.

So, let’s find out how to get back to work, but better.

Dr. Sven Brodmerkel is Assistant Professor of Advertising at Bond University’s Faculty of Society and Design.



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