Opinion: Fully remote working could soon be gone

For more than a year, workers have had the advantage in a historically competitive labor market. But an impending economic downturn threatens to shift the balance of power between employee and employer.

Although seen as a necessity during the pandemic, some business leaders doubt the current level of remote working is sustainable. And they are right. An all-virtual workplace misses out on some of the key drivers of performance, productivity and growth that are currently front and center for businesses facing the prospect of a potential recession. Naturally, they want workers back in the office because they are preparing for an ultra-competitive environment, which calls for maximizing efficiency. Working entirely remotely does not cultivate the level of interpersonal relationships that business leaders see as essential to synergy, collaboration and innovation in the workplace. It cannot replicate the rich, robust, direct two-way communication that is essential to complex and creative work.

When businesses react to market changes and economic stresses, new ideas, problem solving and brainstorming all become essential. And brainstorming sessions are much easier to conduct in person, where workers can air their ideas on collaboration boards in conference rooms or co-working spaces. Remote workers, on the other hand, are more prone to distractions at home that can inhibit their focus and engagement.

It’s not just what happens in formal meetings that adds value. It’s also the organic connections and culture building that happen when workers meet in the hallways or after a company meeting. It’s those spontaneous opportunities to delve into the details that are missing when working remotely.

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Employers and employees will have to make tough decisions in the coming weeks. Certainly, employers need to empathize with the needs of their workers and take safety and health considerations into account when developing and implementing new workplace policies. But the reality is that some employees will still want to work 100% remotely, which may not suit what a particular organization is trying to do. Just as employees seek out opportunities that match their individual career preferences, employers must be willing to seek employees that match the culture of their workplace. If that means parting ways with those who don’t want to return to the office, so be it. Hosting workers who are not culturally aligned is a recipe for a toxic and dysfunctional workplace and does a disservice to all parties. More importantly, being clear about organizational culture and having the right people in place sets the tone for a productive employee/employer relationship and will be key to surviving the economic downturn.

Undoubtedly, there will be workers who disagree with a particular direction. But the onus is on organizational leaders to build a coalition of workers who fit their mission if they are to continue to function and grow. Leaders owe it to all stakeholders, including workers, to make the best policy decisions. Politics cannot only make sense to workers. It must also make business sense in order to preserve work opportunities for workers; it must make financial sense to protect workers’ opportunities to earn a living.

The flexibility we have embraced during the pandemic should go both ways. Workers will have to bend a little, especially when the viability of the workplace is at risk. The hybrid workforce is not going away, but the situation where employees refuse to come to the workplace is not likely to continue.

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