Never Going Back Again

Written by Karen Plum, Director of Research and Development, AWA

While waiting to be interviewed on a BBC Radio show last week, I was listening to Fleetwood Mac singing ‘Little Lies’, which was playing on the show. I’d been invited to talk about the BBC’s finding that 43 of the UK’s biggest employers don’t plan to bring staff back to the office full time. I thought wistfully that a more appropriate Fleetwood Mac song would be ‘Never going back again’. But then the song faded out and the interview began.

I’m joking, of course. AWA’s client work over the last 25 years has shown that most people don’t want to work away from the office all the time. Most want some contact with others – indeed many crave it – but they don’t need it all the time.

So the BBC news about employer intentions was a bright spot in my morning. I’m delighted that so many (43 of the 50 they spoke to) say they are exploring some type of hybrid mix of time in the office and the rest elsewhere – which for most will mean home, but doesn’t have to be.

The power of choice

We’ve worked our way through a year of lockdowns, home schooling, and an ever-changing ‘work’ landscape. It’s been difficult to have any certainty about what the world of work would look like in the future. Most importantly, would the option to work away from the office be withdrawn when organisations decide to reopen their premises?

That’s why certainty and choice are so important. Having choice is empowering. People have discovered what they need in order to work effectively. That may be working from home, or it may be working physically together with colleagues in an office. Or it may be a mix – particularly when thinking about the options in relation to specific activities. 

Right plant, right place

Gardeners tell us “right plant, right place”. Part of the “place” is the material we put the plant in, the position relative to sun, shade and wind; and the ‘container’ – a garden border, pot, raised bed etc.

For me this translates to “right task, right place”, but we should add “right time, right way”. We humans are a complex mix of circadian rhythms, personality, motivation and drivers that mean there is an optimum place and time for the work we do. Being able to choose when and where – and ultimately “how” the work is done – gives freedom to each person to do their best work.

Having a supportive manager that enables us to make the right call about where, when and how to do the work is the ultimate expression of trust. Many managers have found this challenging and without support, there is a danger they will pressurise people to be in the office. The creation of a two-tier community will only serve to erode the feelings of choice that we want people to exercise.

Lots to think about

My absolute hope is that the 43 organisations that are exploring hybrid models of working (and those still making up their minds) will cover all the bases. We have to rethink aspects such as induction processes, how people learn their skills, how we assess performance and how we manage the physical office space with a more fluid population.

And for those that decide to call everyone back to the office, I would ask: Where is your evidence for that decision? Good decisions are evidence-based – not the opinion of a senior person based on their view of the world or because that’s how things have always been done. We really shouldn’t be “going back” at all.

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