Return to the office

Patrick Gallen, Partner, People and Change Consulting, Grant Thornton Ireland

Patrick Gallen

Patrick Gallen

Many of us have been working remotely for almost 18 months by this stage, with lots of highs and lows from that experience. There is a sense around the world that we all need to transition back to the office, with some form of hybrid/blended working set to remain.

Most organisations have been able to maintain productivity; and indeed for some, improve performance during the pandemic through remote working, albeit with challenges around technology, employee resilience, and the feeling of isolation. As organisations begin to review their arrangements for the future, what are some of the issues that management need to be looking at?

Transitioning back to the office brings up many key questions: How many days do we need to be in the office? How do I fairly manage a team that’s partly in the office, partly not? Should I let employees choose when and where they work or assign specific in-office days?  To help answer some of these questions, it is useful to look at experience from around the world and where organisations have already had a tried and tested approach to this previously.

Many organisations have looked at Australia, since many Australians returned to the office in late 2020. There are up to five different models emerging in Australia; from fully remote, to fully back to the office, with a clubhouse model of hybrid working, and somewhere in-between. In the clubhouse model, employees visit the office when they need to collaborate and return home to do their focused work. The office serves as a social hub – the place where people go to meet, socialise and work together.

What I see emerging is that organisations and managers who are weighing these potential workplace options should look to their company’s purpose and strategy, as well as their employees’ preferences and work styles. A technology company paying a premium for offices in a tech hub and selling its product online may well choose to become fully virtual. But a small design firm that uses its office both as a showroom and a place of collaboration may prefer the clubhouse model. Whatever the best option, organisations need to be aware that what works for one organisation, may not work for another.

Another key question is – what does it mean to be a manager today? Being an excellent ‘digital manager’ in a hybrid environment will demand a new set of skills to succeed in a world of remote work, automation, and shifting employee expectations. In my experience, a lot of managers are not prepared and ready for this transition, which could have implications for organisational performance in the short to medium term.

Resisting old routines when returning to the office should be a key priority for managers. Take the opportunity to identify what has worked for your organisation in the last year – and hang on to those practices. Maybe it’s about how you have been leading and managing your team. ‘Checking-in’ may have been much more productive than ‘Checking-Up’!

Making hybrid workplaces fair will be important. New working arrangements will create different power dynamics, and managers need to prepare for that. As work and life become more intertwined, managers need to take new approaches to building trust, and think about how the organisational culture needs to evolve and change in this new environment. This has implications for talent management as well, including recruiting, developing, and managing your key people.

Finally, being a manager isn’t easy at the best of times; and with the transition to hybrid working for many, you do need to prepare yourself for the bumpy road ahead. If there is one lesson learned about the workplace during the pandemic, perhaps it is not that working from home was better or worse than working from an office, but that each had its merits. In the future, it seems likely that firms won’t converge on a single workplace model, but will instead go in many different directions as they seek out models that are tuned to their business needs.

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