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What Does ‘Back to the Office’ Mean for Employees and Managers?


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Over the last months there has been much discussion among the UCaaS vendors and IT organizations about how to accommodate the return of employees who have not yet had to come back to the office. Regardless of the emergence of new COVID mutations, it is clear that we will return to an office world that is fundamentally different than the one we left.
For the last 18 months, most of the workers who use advanced communications and collaboration systems have been working from home. This meant that virtually all of the office interactions moved form a physical to a virtual environment. The impacts of this are significant and should not be ignored.
The impact of the egalitarian structure of a video conference is profoundly different than a traditional office meeting that proceeded it. This starts with the simple positioning of the attendees. In a physical space, the actual location of individuals and their relationship is often important. The seat at the head of the table is often reserved for the “boss,” while certain employees will normally seat themselves based on seniority or other relationships. In a virtual meeting, these structural elements do not exist. Positioning and size of the participants are not readily manageable, and the overall impact has created a much more equal environment. And this new way of work is now habitual for most. A 2010 Study of human behavior, “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world, European Journal of Social Psychology Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009,” showed that it takes 66 days on average (18-254) days for a new behavior to be learned. The new habits of interacting through video are now well learned. And returning to the office may upset those new habits. As more of the workforce returns to in-person office environments, companies are working hard to accommodate the new ways of work. Studies indicate that about 50% of workers would like to have a “hybrid” work schedule with half the time or more working outside the office, but with some significant amount of time in the office. A further 25% of workers would prefer not to return to the office at all and exclusively work remotely. The remining 25% see a permanent office future as best for them. To accommodate all these constituencies, the UCaaS vendors and their customers are focused on transforming the work environment. “Hybrid Work!” has become the rallying cry for a new paradigm where the office and remote work are inherently equal.
To this end, innovation is happening. How do you include the in-room participants so remote workers can see them Cisco and Zoom have each introduced technology which displays room meeting participants as individual remote video images. This technology enables the remote viewers to have a more immersive experience and to see details that would not be visible in a wide angle room view. Additional technologies to count attendees and have alternative rooms available are also under development.
While we have spent a lot of time on the tools and the companies, we have not spent nearly as much time on the really impacted populations -- workers and their managers. While technology can begin to level the playing field between remote and local work, the reality is that employees and managers must evaluate their own work practices and culture beyond the enabling technology. For employees, the fact that a company allows remote work does not necessarily make it a great career decision. While remote work and collaboration tools may be effective for many activities, it remains to be seen if it can be an effective way to attend/participate in highly interactive events with multiple in-room participants. For managers, creating the environment that allows a full range of employees to succeed may be the best key to future success. Finding the balance for your team may be crucial for overall effectiveness.
For employees, many will face a decision over the next year as to their primary work location. While some organizations may dictate to their workers where they are expected to do their jobs, many will offer employees more flexibility, with options to either have a permanent daily office or participate in some form of hybrid/remote work. However, these employee choices could have significant impacts on the employee’s success and career prospects. In organizations where local meetings predominate, choosing a remote work situation may limit effectiveness in meetings. Alternatively, being one of 5 or 6 people in a conference room when others, including management, as individuals in a video conference may also limit participation. For employees, understanding who will be in the meeting locally versus remotely and how the organization operates will be key criteria in deciding whether to go to the office for a meeting or attend remotely.
Similarly, managers are now faced with a conundrum. Whether a manager is truly comfortable with remote work or not, most workers and organizations will accommodate it in the future. However, a manager can easily, through their actions and words, create a clear perception that physical attendance in the office is required. While this clarity seems to be advantageous for employees to clearly understand what is expected, an “in the office only” policy may discourage a large percentage of potential employees from applying. This situation can also be created thorough a cultural position in the organization “We don’t mandate coming to the office, but good employees just do.”
As we all move into the next phases of the redefinition of work that COVID has initiated, it is critical for companies to look not only at their technology, but also their culture. Training managers on how to build their work processes to minimize any bias towards either local or remote work will be important to both employee satisfaction, but also overall productivity and outcomes.