Outside the Box: Companies win when employees are in the office, but threats, orders and mind-numbing work won’t get them back

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In corporate boardrooms across the globe, lively debate is occurring around getting employees to return to the office. After more than two years of pandemic-forced remote work, many CEOs want employees in the office. Others have decided employees can work from home for as long as they want.

Both sides have compelling arguments, and the corporate world is at an inflection point. “Back-to-the-office” executives say remote work is subpar for everyone: employees; companies and communities. They warn that over the medium-term, remote work reduces economic growth and innovation. They point out that making remote work permanent is a fundamentally different equation, with distinct risks for corporations.

“Remote-work” executives, meanwhile, describe self-examination and a shift in priorities during COVID, as workers seek an improved work/life balance. These advocates point to metrics showing that productivity has not suffered over the past couple of years, and remind us that they are still engaged in a war for talent.  If remote work is what it takes to attract and retain the best, so be it.

After weighing both of these positions, we have concluded that there are specific detriments to remote work and its impact on employees — especially those just beginning their careers. 

While young workers may treasure the flexibility of working remotely, they pay a high price for it. They miss critical on-the-job training,  informal, face-to-face counsel and in-person guidance from a mentor to help them navigate. These early years are the foundation of a young employee’s career. They hone technical skills, build a network and learn how to negotiate and to navigate organizational complexities. Without in-person training, their ability to successfully adapt to a corporate culture and find their career path can be impaired.

More seasoned employees are also hurt in by remote work. First, their performance is not assessed properly in virtual meetings. Everyone migrates towards an indistinctive average without receiving adequate individual feedback. Second, and probably worse, employees often struggle to draw a line between work and personal life. Many surveys underline this point, noting that meetings have multiplied beyond reason and people find themselves answering emails in the middle of the night. Third, their job as managers has become more complex, particularly integrating newcomers and managing professional development. This only further compounds the risk of burnout.

In a competitive corporate environment, where sustaining a technical edge is key, only extraordinary teamwork and the transmission of expertise and experience across generations enables a company to outperform. This interaction is best achieved physically. Face-to-face meetings online work to a point, but not as well as gathering in a conference room where ideas are discussed and confronted until a solution emerges.

More than money

So how do companies get workers to want to return to the office? Employers must give them a reason — not an order.

While addressing the challenges around commuting and caregiving are essential, the biggest issue is the “meaning” imperative.

In his masterful memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” author Viktor Frankel shows that our primary driver in life is not pleasure, but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. Locked inside their homes during the pandemic, many workers discovered this insight. They asked themselves whether their organization, or their job, provided the meaning they searched for in life.

Workers today will not come back to B.S. jobs.

The main responsibility of a CEO and top management nowadays must be to create a workplace that is full with meaning. This requirement begins with a corporate strategy that must resonate with all employees. Everyone needs to understand how they fit in, why their role matters and how it connects to the rest of the company.

Unfortunately, most business strategies today fail to answer the most important questions: Why do we exist? What is the purpose of our business? Why does it matter? These are the critical questions that must be answered simply and concretely — not just by top management but by every manager in the organization.

Every position in a company must be meaningful and allow for personal growth and professional development. Every role must be examined to see if it passes the meaning test: Does it carry real responsibilities? If not, the job must be revised or eliminated. This is one of the critical lessons of the past two years. Workers today will not come back to B.S. jobs.

Organization leaders need to explore a new set of challenges, ones that will require them to rethink how to on-board and integrate newcomers. Further, organizations must transmit experience and technical expertise across generations and maintain workers’ sense of belonging.

A hybrid approach, where employees spend most of their time in the office, would mitigate many new risks while maintaining flexibility for employees.  We believe many companies will ultimately conclude that sustaining a corporate culture and technical edge over the long-term requires greater physical presence at the office, but more importantly ensuring that employees find meaning in their work.

Ramon de Oliveira is a director of AXA . George Stansfield is deputy CEO & general secretary of AXA Group.

More: So your boss asked you to go back to the office? Not everyone appears to be jumping at the opportunity

Also read: ‘People are seeking a genuine connection with their colleagues.’ Not all workers are happy with remote work.

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