Return to the Office or Working Remotely?

As more and more people around the world are being vaccinated a debate from various business leaders seems to be heating up. HSBC has just announced that it intends to reduce its office space around the world by nearly 40% as part of sweeping cost cutting designed to capitalise on new part-office-part-homeworking arrangements after the pandemic. On the same day, Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon has rejected remote working as a “new normal” and labelled it an “aberration” instead.

So what shall it be, an eventual complete return to the office or shall we keep certain aspects of remote work?

The latest research shows that the experience of the past year, more employees than ever before prefer working remotely. However, this requires some proper thinking on the fundamental nature of the organisation for business leaders to properly address important questions like: How will we handle tasks and decisions which are best done face-to-face even if many employees today say they prefer to work remotely? What will be the longer-term impact on the business culture if we end up dividing the work force? On what basis shall business leaders makes these choices and whom should they listen to?

In essence, the specific answers to such questions depend on the unique situation each business leader is facing. However, may I try to forward you some generic guidelines to help you think objectively on this matter.

  • No Rush. Wise leaders know that the difference between a fresh crisp salad and absolute trash is time. Hence they should resist pressure to define a policy or make final decisions until it’s necessary to do so. Hopefully we are getting nearer to the end of the pandemic each day, but we are not there yet. There is loads of uncertainty about what lies ahead and so it is important to avoid steps that will either create unrealistic expectations or limit options. For such big, consequential decisions, one key success factor is to buy time to gather more information and leave options open as long as possible.
  • Don’t show your hand yet. When discussing return-to-work options and various scenarios, business leaders should keep their personal preferences under wraps for now, to avoid influencing the thinking and level of analysis. It is more important for business leaders to ask questions and refrain from making declarative statements for as long as possible. Maybe someone should advice Goldman Sachs boss about this.
  • Remember that opinions change. Business leaders should not be over influenced by the fact that many employees seems to prefer remote working. When it becomes truly safe to go outside, go abroad and thus live through several months of living with fewer restrictions, perspectives on returning back to the office may change.
  • Listen to first line managers. Business leaders should distinguish between the views of their employees and those of their first line managers. research is indicating that many managers have found working remotely more frustrating than satisfying because their job involves tasks that are most difficult to do remotely. Ensure collaboration across department lines, coaching employees, deal with people and relationship problems and reading effectively the subtle signs of everyday interactions and overcoming barriers to communication are all so much more difficult when working remotely. However they will require to be done well, since if they are not morale and teamwork decline, and ultimately productivity and innovation suffers. Managing people is always more difficult when working remotely. So what first line managers think about the return-to-work plan should carry special weight and count for more than the views of people who report to them.
  • Company Size. Business leaders should recognize that company size is an important variable in these choices. Even well-run startups tend to be chaotic because the business is finding its way — it’s not yet clear what works and doesn’t. But larger companies can’t survive like that; without some predictability and routine, the risks and consequences of failure are higher. Larger organizations also need to rely more on formal policies and perceptions of fairness, limiting their ability to make decisions on a person-by-person basis, as smaller organisations might do.
  • Technology is great, but it has its limitations. I see many business leaders focusing on seeing how technology can make remote working more efficient. In my opinion and more pertinent view is seeing what will technology not allow the business to do well if we really completely on technology to work and communicate. Hence, CEOs must factor in the costs to the culture of over-reliance on remote work. I find it hard to believe that real teams can be built online. Creativity depends on spontaneity and repeated unplanned iterations. Loyalty and dedication to bigger purpose requires that people go through good and bad times together, shoulder to shoulder. Indeed, there are certain themes that appear after listening to people describe their experiences of a year of working remotely. One is that the nature of the conversations is more transactional than happens in the office. Similarly, discussions tend toward brevity, with less depth and fewer exploration of consequences, and there is little time to think and reflect. So my advice is that business leaders should avoid being influenced by high-profile companies (like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Adobe, and Oracle) that are quickly announcing plans to permanently embrace remote work. The most active advocates for expanded remote work are in industries that have the most to gain financially: software development technology companies. Remote workers use tech products and social media more than people do in offices. This gives tech industries a rooting interest in what other companies decide. So any wise business should keep in mind the self interest of such advocates of remote ways of working.

Policies about the mix of remote and in-office work have ramifications beyond short term cost and efficiency. Because of what we’ve gone through over the past year, we are about to enter a new era in the evolution of business organisations. Decisions that business leaders make over the next few months will set the tone for how work will be done in the future, impacting the relationships employees have formed and their emotional connection with the company. They should be made very carefully.

At EMCS we can help you on this matter as we are already doing with various businesses. Thus we can give you insights as to what you need to look our for and on what basis you should form decisions. As I keep saying, we are always just a chat away. Feel free to drop me an email to and I will be happy to have an informal chat with you on the matter.

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