We’re entering a pivotal moment for the modern workplace. Eighteen months after lockdown, employers have mostly decided when, how, and how many employees may come back into their workspaces. Many are experimenting with a hybrid mix of remote and in-office working. This offers nearly limitless permutations—and just as many chances for friction between management and employees. Finding a balance that works for everyone, and still gives the business the best strategic posture, will be tough. And as economies begin to return rapidly to growth, workplace decisions made in the next six to eight months will define the potential of a business for the next decade.
Different industries have clearly different perspectives. Big Tech has generally been cautious about returning to the office, pushing that date further and further into the future. Among banks, however, the anxiousness to bring everyone back on to the same floor or into the same conference room is palpable. Back in the summer of 2020, leading figures from the industry were already advocating a full return to the office. Jamie Dimon, the often-quoted JPMorgan CEO, has said remote working has slowed decision-making, hampered apprenticeships, and reduced spontaneous learning and creativity. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon called remote working an aberration and said that it was “not a new normal.”
What’s important is the consistency of outcomes across the business, not the consistency of work arrangements.
Many financial institutions, particularly in the US, targeted September to bring most employees back together in person. And while COVID-19 has led to several banks delaying or reducing those aims, nonetheless a presumption has developed that banking executives will rush to fill the desks, while their employees will resist giving up the freedom of remote working. But this may not be the case. The Infosys Knowledge Institute polled the top 15 US and UK banks at the end of July this year, finding that employers were expecting fewer staff in the office, whereas employees wanted to come in more. Both sides agreed that that full-time office working will certainly decline significantly. Yet managers expect two-thirds of staff will work three days or less in the office, while in complete contradiction to this, two-thirds of employees say they want to work four days or more there.
This highlights a lack of consensus and understanding that may cause a risk to businesses planning their future in the “new normal.” And the stakes are high, as revealed by Microsoft’s recent research on The Great Resignation.
For success in the next two years, it is going to be crucial to predict the needs and cater effectively for your best employees, while ensuring knowledge transfer, job retention, collaboration, and productivity. This complex balancing act needs to embed these three principles:
One Size Does Not Fit All: Working arrangements and preferences will not only differ among functions, regions, roles, and employee types—but within them as well. Don’t assume that because one group works one way, a similar demographic or function will want to work the same. What’s important is the consistency of outcomes across the business, not the consistency of work arrangements.
Keep Flexible and Track: This is a learning period for all involved. Experiment with different workplace arrangements and give your managers and employees the room to try what suits them—and to change their minds. But importantly, track and record productivity and sentiment to inform your decisions.
Make a Convincing Case: At some point, decisions will have to be made that don’t suit everyone. Some roles and activities will prove to be better in person, while others will be more effective remote. Use the data and business case to gain buy-in from all stakeholders, and find ways to help them gain in that benefit—be it professionally, financially, or personally.
The “new normal” of work is a great opportunity to reassess and rebuild the workplace to be more cost effective, productive, collaborative, innovative, engaging, and sustainable. But to do this, former ideologies and biases will need to be set aside, whether they pertain to working from the home or office. The coming months are a chance to experiment, learn, and apply those lessons. The corporate world has very few chances to reinvent itself. Perhaps this is the best way to see this period: not as a problem that needs fixing, but as an opportunity to explore.