“I’m an enthusiastic advocate for remote working as part of a varied approach to working styles and spend much of my time discussing the benefits of working in this way. In this piece, I tackle serious issues around work style in a light-hearted way. Imagine it’s 2029 and the latest trend to hit corporate culture is a move away from distributed and remote working to 100% in-office operations. What I would say were I to be tasked with convincing you of the benefits of in-office work? The results make interesting reading.”
The future of work is being disrupted. It’s 2029 and it’s time to look at how we work differently. Changing times call for changing work practices.
We’re witnessing the dawn of a new era. A move from the era of distributed workforces, back to in-office work. From people working in a variety of locations, to working in just one. From diversity to uniformity. From fluidity to structure. Changing times require changing work practices and that means a move to an office-based workforce.
Figures for dispersed working have remained fairly steady over the last decade, after a steep rise in the decade before that. Now, more than 60% of professionals work at least half of their week away from the office, either at a client’s site, a co-working space or from home. But changing times require changing work practices, so increasingly, professional firms are moving their workforce into the office. In some cases, they are mandating that roles require 100% office presence and visibility. Such a shift in working practices has met with resistance in some quarters but our research shows that all major concerns around a move to in-office work can be addressed with careful planning, well-considered initiatives and a controlled, consistent approach.
So, what are these concerns and how can they be addressed?
- Higher cost: Some professional firms continue to prevaricate around whether mandating in-office work will increase overheads and therefore diminish margins. True, a move to distributed working over the last couple of decades has seen a significant reduction in firms’ overheads spent on city centre premises and the associated financial and environmental cost of heating, lighting and cooling large premises. However, it’s 2029 and times are changing. Clients tell us they don’t mind paying higher fees for the comfort of knowing that their advisers are all located in expensive city centre real estate. In fact, we have found a direct correlation between a firm’s profitability and the size and quality of its reception area. Indeed, the more unused space on show, the higher the profits. So, for all those Managing Partners out there who are unsure about making the move, listen to your clients, have faith in the power of image and act accordingly.
- Inputs not outputs: When we started to move to distributed working twenty years ago, it was fashionable to talk about judging contributions by output rather than input. Distributed working brought with it a lack of worker visibility and it was no longer possible to measure commitment according to presenteeism. Accordingly, a new metric was used: outputs. Since then, we have learned that assessing value solely by output removes the option of maximising hours worked. Our evidence suggests that capable people – those that contribute the firm’s pioneering, high quality work – are more focused when out of the office and therefore produce the same amount of work in less time than would have done in the office. In short, while they deliver the output required, they work fewer hours under an output-based metric system. Workplace productivity experts believe that this has resulted in millions of potentially billable hours per year being lost due to workers’ increased focus in a distributed environment. In contrast, in-office work will allow these excess hours to be visible and, importantly, filled and billed. We will, once again, be able to sweat the assets.
- Flexibility: HR departments and senior management have worked hard to address the concerns of groups such as working parents or those with caring responsibilities who found that distributed working allowed them to meet their professional and personal duties. So workers will be able to apply for flexible working, for example, to leave the office early one or two days a week or to work from home a day a fortnight.
- Community involvement: Distributed workers indicate that they have been able to get more involved in their local community, as a sports coach, scout leader or carer for a senior citizen, for example. Some have gone so far as to correlate the recent trend back towards in-office working with the recent closure of local community groups due to a lack volunteers. We hear these concerns and understand that community involvement is important to a well-functioning society. That’s why professional firms have increased their CSR work through in-office programmes and events. Fundraising morning teas or after-work community awareness seminars, for example.
- Sustainability: There are some concerns that 100% of the professional workforce commuting in and out of city centres at around the same time will increase congestion, energy usage and pollution. That’s why some firms are also mandating that their people use public transport for their entire commute, regardless of where they live. Some workers who live further out of the city have expressed concerns that this will make their commute exhaustively long, with a knock-on effect on their health and wellbeing. In response, professional firms have launched wellbeing programmes to help workers with a commute of one hour or more, manage their time more effectively.
- Communication: Many professionals have known nothing other than distributed working, especially millennials. As a consequence, their working style fits only this type of engagement. Professional firms are therefore putting in place change management programmes to aid the transition. One firm has a #focusnow programme, designed to help previously distributed workers undertake deep work in the noise and buzz of an open plan office. Another has introduced a programme called ‘Managing Politics’ to help those who are new to in-office work, navigate the social and political issues that arise in a face-to-face environment. Many previously distributed workers are reporting a reduction in productivity and increase in anxiety since their move in-office. They attribute this to the fact that in-office work reduces the focus on tasks and increases the importance of other factors such as political status. However, we are confident that well-considered training programmes will help increase their levels of emotional sophistication to a point where they are able to process tasks and office politics equally well.
- Mental health: Professional businesses are nothing without the effort and excellence of their workers, so ensuring their well-being and mental health is a priority. Those of you who have been in the workforce for some time will recall that when distributed work became more common, so did concerns around loneliness and isolation. It’s fair to say that the reality was somewhat different, with the vast majority of distributed workers reporting an increase in well-being due to more family time, fresh-air, scope for exercise and greater community involvement. Now the concern swings the other way and it is our responsibility to ensure that in-office work provides well-being experiences to replace this. That’s why all of the major professional firms have invested in comprehensive well-being programmes. Early-morning yoga, nature-themed meeting rooms, sun lamps, bring-your-child-to-work days and charity fundraisers are just some of the ways we are ensuring that the office offers similar well-being opportunities to distributed work.
Responsible companies are listening to workers’ concerns about adapting to in-office work and understand that the change will be difficult for some. Many have employed consultants from to put in place a series of initiatives to ease the transition. Through a combination of self-help, flexible working, community engagement and psychological support programmes, these companies have emerged as more efficient, regulated and controlled organisations.