Guest AuthorRaja Jamalamadaka
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Work from Home Vs Work from Office – What’s at the heart of this debate?

By | Raja Jamalamadaka | Industry speaker | Neuroscience coach | Marshall Goldsmith awardee | Author | LinkedIn Top voice | IIT | Harvard

With the vast proportion of population “learning to live” with Covid by taking the right precautions, corporate offices across geographies are gradually reopening up. As organizations encourage their staff to return to offices, they are finding it unusually difficult to attract their staff. The “work from home” Vs “Work from office” subject has turned into a contentious debate.

Over the last 2 years (and especially the last 5 months), I have spoken as a guest speaker on the topic – “the neuroscience of work from office/home” – at several organizations spread across geographies. These organizations ranged in size from startups to Fortune 500 organizations. The fora of the talk ranged from industry meets and leadership conclaves to focused workshops and informal discussions. At several of these organizations, I conducted anonymous surveys to understand this topic and analyzed the results. This article is based on the observations from these surveys. The views of nearly 220 leaders and nearly 6000+ employees across 100 organizations have been factored into this article.

For the purposes of this article,

“Leaders” stands for people leaders – regardless of whether they manage one individual or thousands. 

“Employees” stands for individual contributors regardless of “number of years of experience”.

“Work from office” (hereafter referred to as WFO) refers to a model of working from the corporate office premises in some pattern for any number of days – from all days a week to a few days a week/month/quarter. Hybrid working model is also included in Work from office.

“Work from home” (hereafter referred to as WFH) refers to a perpetual “work from home” model – with only a need-based work from office. It also includes all varieties like “Work From Anywhere” or “Work While Traveling” or “Your Work, Our Execution” models.

The organization surveyed are from the professional services space – where perpetual work from home is a workable option

Observations –

1.      A high percentage (more than 65%) of leaders preferred WFO.

2.      A significantly higher percentage of employees (75%) preferred WFH.

3.      Age – Physical Age directly co-related with WFO. The higher, the age of the leader, the higher the preference for WFO and proportionately lower the desire to WFH.

4.      Gender – Adjusted for other factors, the female gender had a slightly higher preference for WFH although the difference between genders wasn’t significant. Age was a stronger predictor than gender.

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The leaders perspective-

Why does such a larger percentage of leaders want employees to WFO? Here are the points I gathered from the leaders themselves –

(Please read the full article including views and counterpoints of employees before posting a comment)

1.      Employee morale and Retention– Leaders pointed to the ample data from surveys on morale and retention that showed lower employee engagement in a WFH setup. One leader summarized it succinctly – “People that ‘meet and greet’ in person tend to ‘survive and thrive’ despite the vicissitudes of corporate life. How can you meet and greet without a WFO?” 

2.      Culture – Leaders agreed culture isn’t “spoken or discussed”, it is “seen and felt”. If employees never visit office and meet colleagues, they cannot appreciate the true culture of the organizations they belong to. One leader told me – “There is more to an organization than the immediate colleagues you are in touch with. The experience is lost in a WFH model”. But why bother about culture? Virtually, every leader I conversed with vouched for the wisdom in Peter Drucker’s famous quote – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast everyday”. One leader told me “no culture, no strategy”. 

3.      Networking – Leaders from large and complex organizations strongly believed that professional growth and success is linked as much to subject-matter-expertise as to networking with the right stakeholders. Leaders from these Fortune 1000 organizations felt the “ways of working” are best assimilated by observing other stakeholders at work or speaking to them over “water cooler” conversations – something that is impossible in a WFH model. According to one leader, “if you are not NETworking, you are NOT working.”

4.      Innovation – Most leaders believed Innovation thrived at the interplay between individual thoughts and collective wisdom in the right environment. The vast majority of leaders believed that a face-to-face setting in a well designed office provided this right environment.

5.      Relationships – Cutting across industries, leaders told me that relationships with colleagues were vital to maintaining sanity, work efficiency and mental health. More than a handful of leaders were able to recall episodes of misunderstanding between colleagues that arose due to remote settings – and they festered for months. But what’s the link to WFO? One leader told me “Corporate relationships are made in office and cemented in informal out-of-office lunches/dinners. If employees never show up at the workplace, where’s the start?” 

6.      Mentors and coaches – Leaders across industries and geographies spoke at length about the importance of cultivating a mentor for personal and professional success. One leader quoted Bob Proctor “A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.”. and then wryly said “Please give them an opportunity to “see” you – by WFO.

A statistically significant minority of leaders (20%) listed several additional benefits of WFO –developing soft skills, etiquettes, discipline, organization connect, avoid odd hour working, ergonomic setup at work – the list was endless. Summarizing it all, one leader said “You can have an average job working from home or build a great career working from office.”

To be sure, a significant percentage (65%) leaders agreed things wont be the same as pre-Covid – and agreed a hybrid WFO would be the norm. They also agreed about the benefit of WFH in attracting talent from tier 2 and 3 cities, thereby decluttering cities.  However, the same leaders didn’t see these benefits superseding the advantages of WFO.

With so many benefits, you would expect employees to sign up enthusiastically for WFO? Not so. Across industries, companies (startups to Fortune 500), geographies and economies (advances to emerging markets), the enthusiasm of the leaders to work from office was met with equal and often higher level of resistance from employees.

A significant percentage of employees wanted to work from home perpetually and visit office on a need-basis as decided by themselves (not in any pattern or hybrid model decided by leaders). Why are employees so fascinated with WFH? Here are the views and counterpoints from the employees I interacted with–

The Employee’s perspective

1.      Old ways of working of leaders– The vast majority of employees (91%) agreed with the leaders on the importance of mentorship and coaching, relationship building, innovation and culture. However, the view was that all these could be achieved equally effectively in a WFH setup, if leaders would be willing to adapt to the “new ways of working”. (“Everything worked for two years during Covid, why will it stop working in the future?”) In fact, a surprisingly large percentage of employees (60%) viewed their leaders as belonging to an “old school” living in ivory tower with no touch with the ground realities and no willingness to adapt to a changed post-Covid reality. 

Employees wanted leaders to walk their own talk – “The only thing constant in life is change. Adapt and change to the post-Covid reality.”.

2.      Sense of loss of autonomy – Most employees (90%) cited the “sense of control on life” as the single biggest benefit of WFH. Historically, people adjusted their personal life around their professional life. The forced WFH during Covid eliminated the WFO (plus the resulting commute) and allowed employees to make their personal life as their highest priority by adjusting their professional life around their personal life– this strengthened the quality of their personal relationships and enriched the overall quality of their life. One employee said, “I choose my workplace, my work timings, my dressing, and everything in between. Why would I want to lose the autonomy by WFO?”

3.      Disenchantment in some areas showing up as reluctance to WFO – For years, a substantial percentage (55%) of employees had nursed grudges against the leadership and the organizations on a range of core topics – excessive work hours, compensation not commensurate with work, weak perks, meaningless employee policies, and a general feeling of being “used” by the organization. With several of these basic issues remaining unsolved, “offices” became the symbol of this disenchantment. A sizeable proportion of employees (25%) also viewed offices as a leaders’ backyard – a place where leaders exuded power. Covid induced WFH provided these employees the opportunity to stay away from the office and avoid (if not eliminate) the disenchantment.

These employees didn’t want to experience the same disenchanted state by returning to office (although several agreed the disenchantment wasn’t with the office itself).

Employees wanted leaders to fix the core issues (compensation, work hours, policies, culture) – without these being fixed, didn’t perceive huge value in benefits like free food, or advanced topics like networking, mentorship and culture.   

4.      Office is a “one-size fits-all” facility – A surprisingly large number of employees (51%) believed the modern day offices had become anachronisms, designed as a “one-size-fits-all” solution with no understanding of or regard for individual preferences. Examples included – Some like to work in silent setting, others in a group; some preferred open settings, while others thrived in private spaces and so on. Despite these individual differences, all employees had to put up with an office designed according to “corporate headquarter priorities” and employees felt this mismatch drastically reduced their productivity and engagement – strengthening a preference for WFH.

Many of them felt the time had come for a “facility” revolution – rethinking workspaces as customizable units that could be dynamically designed according to individual employee tastes in a short time. (“Mould the office facility to our preferences – don’t force us to mould to your pre-designed workplace else we cannot be at our best everyday”). A sizeable minority felt this should be made a part of employee onboarding. One employee commented “Here is your laptop, your joining card and your own personal workspace molded to your personal interests. Wont this be the right joining experience instead of just seeing corporate decks about policies?”

A significant percentage of employees (22%) also referred to additional benefits of WFH like ability to work from their hometowns, ability to tap into the support system offered by extended families and elimination of taxing commute.

5.      Assumptions – What disengaged employees the most was leaders’ approach of assuming the expectations/views of their employees without having actually understood them and rapidly generalizing these into organization policies. Examples included –

a. Employees like socializing hence they would love to work from office in some pattern to benefit from this socialization. Lets introduce a hybrid WFO policy. (“Not every employee loves to socialize”).

b. Employees like work from home because they enjoyed it during the two years in Covid. We will offer permanent WFH. (“Several employees hated WFH due to demands of families/children and would prefer to work from office instead”).

In short, employees expectations of leaders was to be treated as unique (as opposed to “special”) individuals with unique requirements than a “common flock” with “similar requirements”.

 Summary

As I analyzed the results, two things appeared to be at the heart of the WFO Vs WFH debate –

1.      The value proposition of WFO as articulated by the leaders missed the expectations of the employees.

2.      Employees viewed WFO (in any form – hybrid or full WFO) as something they didn’t “buy” – it is the leaders that are trying to “hard sell” it to them. That difference in perspective made all the difference.

3.      Employees mantra – “We are unique individuals with a distinct set of requirements. One size doesn’t fit us all.”.

4.      End Vs Means– Some organizations are solving for “WFH Vs WFO” as if that debate is an end in itself. “WFH vs WFO” isn’t the end, it is a means to an end of fulfilling the business goals. In general, employees wanted leaders to focus on deciding the scope of work (“WHAT” and “WHY” to do) and leaving the execution (“How” i.e. WFH or WFO) to employees.

Recommendations

1.      No two organizations are the same. Every organization has to choose a unique path with regard to WFO vs WFH. There is no “industry standard” trends at this point.

2.      It would help if leaders listen to their employees (even more intently than earlier) and decide based on the views. Inferring their expectations from any source (industry reports, peer leaders, personal views) without having fully understood the employees might backfire.

3.      There is no concept of company-wide (leave alone “industry wide”) policy or best practices on WFO or WFH that applies to all employees. Keeping this flexible would help employee engagement. 

4.      WFO vs WFH doesn’t fit into the paradigm of drafting a “one-size-fits-all” company policy. In fact, as a future trend, “policies” need a rethink as tools that adapt to (rather than generalize ) all employees.

Notes about the study-

1.      I have chosen to keep the area of my ongoing research (neuroscience) of work from home Vs work from office (i.e. what happens inside the brain during long-term WFH vs WFO and how that impact results long term) – outside the scope of the article.

2.      There were some differences in perspectives across geographies but not significantly enough to affect the overall results.

3.      There was a statistically significant difference between startups and large global MNC’s – but the overall trend stayed the same.

4. I have tried to objectively present perspectives without taking sides with any one group. My personal views are not factored in this article.

Your perspectives are vital. Please feel to drop a comment in the comments box below so that I can appreciate your perspective.  

Republished with permission and originally published at Raja Jamalamadaka’s LinkedIn

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