A long time ago, in a pre-pandemic time that today appears far, far away, I was listening to the morning radio. The presenter – a young man with the kind of superior naïveté reserved for the middle-class rebellious – was broadcasting live from the middle of a rush hour at standstill. Walking from car to car, knocking on drivers’ windows in a poorly disguised attempt at sneering at the mundanity of perceived corporate lemminghood, he kept asking the same question.
“Why do you spend your morning here, in a car, in a queue that is so slow-moving that I can walk past it?”
But the reply that he was fishing for never really came. Of course, there were those who in more or less resigned tones explained that they had to, but none was lamenting their fate. They merely got on with it, as it were. To make matters worse for the presenter, more than a few also pointed out (to his utter bewilderment) that this was their oasis; an hour or two a day on their own, in silence, in solitude, far from the family, the dog and the home.
To use a marketing term, the show host had forgotten about market orientation. Not everyone is like you.
When it comes to the current debate about working from home, I see many commit the same faux pas. The reasons why people might or might not want to return to the office are legion, yet their voices are drowned out by so-called thought leaders shouting at the top of their lungs about what everyone else wants: a presumed aggregation of the personal preferences of those most vocal.
Commentators time and again stab themselves in the foot with the flag they are trying to put into the ground, to show everyone else precisely where they stand. The current ‘should I stay or should I go?’ clash is just another example of it.
Evidence on both sides
On one side of the binary fence, there are those who loudly proclaim that the non-office solution is the only viable approach. One senior marketer recently claimed that they had put into practice calling key employees of rival companies, the moment said organisation let it be publicly known that they would return to the office. Apparently, this modus operandi had led to a number of new hires, though the number of total calls made and a discussion around whether the recent hires would have jumped ship anyway were conveniently omitted.
On the other side stand those who scoff at the very notion of not coming back in. The place of work for all employees is the workplace; if they are not there, they will be the ones who suffer for it. And there might be at least a grain of truth to that.
If you have paid attention, though, you have heard it all before. Working from home has been on the larger corporate agenda for almost 50 years, arguably beginning in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo that caused soaring gasoline prices and thereby skyrocketing commuting costs. Legislation, technical trends and, in particular, Covid may have accelerated the process, but it is hardly new in itself.
This also means that there is plenty of research available on the topic, though few appear to have bothered to read it.
Allowing employees to work from home (WFH) or to work from anywhere (WFA) makes a lot of sense at first glance. As studies by Bloom, Choudhury, Anderson and others have demonstrated over the years, organisations can reduce real estate costs, better compete for global talent and increase overall productivity.
Yet at the same time, reports have shown that people can become isolated both socially and professionally. Even with regular video call check-ins, managers may miss crucial signs of burnout or team dysfunction – and working from home easily translates to living at work.
The only correct answer is whatever works best for your team, your department, your company and your context.
At least that is what the evidence says. What there is little proof for is that a lack of physical presence would be detrimental to overall performance through less internal competition. In fact, research has established that promoting such competitiveness in the first place is typically what is harmful, both on an individual and team level.
A hybrid model of full-flex time based on employee choice is often as close to good enough as one can get and, for full transparency, one that I have utilised myself. Allowing people the freedom to leave earlier, come to work later or not at all – as long as they perform to standard, show up for key meetings and deliver to deadline – has worked exceptionally well for me. But at the same time, it makes office planning more difficult and, if one is not careful, can also lead to silos forming between office in-groups and office out-groups.
It is also very important to note that implementing full-flex can create diversity issues; women and minorities have been found to want to work from home significantly more than white men do. Given which group is most likely to be found in management circles and above (I will give you a hint: it is still neither women nor minorities), preventing on-site favoritism is crucial. Executives are nearly three times more likely to want to return to the office full-time than non-executive employees.
Thus, as you no doubt have realised, the WFH/WFA conversation that you are currently having is a lot more nuanced than outsiders would have you believe. Arguments all along the spectrum – from the extremes to a mix in-between – each have their benefits and drawbacks.
The only correct answer is whatever works best for your team, your department, your company and your context. As with anything to do with marketing management, there is never any One Thing to rule them all. Nothing is context-free. Everything is context-specific. And context is ever-changing.
In a complex reality, the best thing you can therefore do is to avoid the Jeopardy consultant who is able to provide answers before they have asked any questions. Regardless of the certainty of their words.
Instead, start by enquiring with your employees what they might prefer. It does not mean that they should be allowed to do whatever they want, mind, but at least have the conversations so that you both understand where the other side is coming from. At the end of the day, whether people prefer to work from home or return there by means of slow-moving rush hour traffic, they are adults. So there is no need to treat them like children by reading them fantastical stories about how they should behave.
JP Castlin is a former consultancy executive turned independent strategic and complexity management consultant