Author: Stephen Philips, BIR Board member
When asking colleagues “are you returning to the office”, it appears to be an emotive question, the responses to which run the gamut of emotions, all within a sentence or two.
As a society we adapted very quickly to the call to work remotely during the health crisis, indeed it was a welcomed shift. Okay, it presented some challenges and minor inconveniences, but overall many felt it was no sacrifice to not be in the office. As the health crisis continued, lockdowns came and went, some returned to offices whilst others continued to tough it out at home. Latterly, some started to lament their absence from the workplace, welcoming the opportunity to get back, recognising some very definite benefits of rebuilding their social capital with their colleagues.
Reflecting on these reactions, it seems to me there are parallels with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “The five stages of grief” (https://www.ekrfoundation.org/5-stages-of-grief/5-stages-grief/), which she subsequently adapted to the change curve. Not everyone goes through all five stages, but there are indicators that many organisations and their employees are at different points along this curve:
- The initial shock associated with the need to return to the office is quickly replaced by evidence of denial. A colleague recently went to a colleague’s leaving drinks. The venue was a crowded city bar, but he couldn’t find one colleague that had been working in the office that day. Many citing the risk of COVID for not going in.
- Frustration manifests itself in a number of ways, but some colleagues express theirs by citing “Why do I need to go the office? I am just as productive at home”
- Resignation has crept in with many admitting they will return to the office in some capacity at some point, it is just a question of time.
- The experimental phase is where most currently find themselves, employers are setting expectations of their employees and providing guidance, with many offering hybrid working. Colleagues are figuring out how a hybrid model might work best for them. Whilst some employers are planning to reduce the salaries of those working remotely on a permanent basis, including Google and Stephenson Harwood.
- The decision making stage has manifested itself in attrition, as people decide if they can work within the new paradigms or if they want to follow their own aspirations (Whitney Johnson, HBR: https://hbr.org/2022/04/the-great-resignation-is-a-misnomer). Contrary to what you might believe, colleagues I have spoken to appear to have had little trouble in finding new talent.
- Integration is the final stage of the curve; accepting change, adapting to the new normal and getting on with it. Whilst I would contend that some organisations are already there, having largely returned to their pre pandemic work rhythms, many have some way to go.
The humanist in me would like to believe that the future of work will be shaped around people, in order to drive the best outcomes both for the organisation and the individual. I fear that will not be the case. The current labour shortage makes it a job seekers market, the UK ONS estimates there are 1 million fewer workers in the economy than pre pandemic and over 1 million vacancies to be filled. Organisations are increasing pay, perks and benefits to attract new talent and retain tenured staff by bringing them in line with market.
A global recession, caused by rising prices and interest rates, increased resource costs, volatile financial markets, the global upheaval caused by regional conflicts and increasingly strained supply chains may flip the jobs market on its head. It will also erode the finances of those that decided to retire or “downsize” during the pandemic. Work will once again become attractive, or a necessity and may signal the end of the hybrid working experiment. With less pressure to accommodate their demands, employers will be emboldened to re-engage staff on their own terms.
With so much of this out of our individual control, I tend to look for inspiration or words of wisdom from others. On this occasion, I will leave the last word to Socrates (470-399BC):
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new”