“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” according to the proverb. Or is it more a case of “out of sight, out of mind”? Lengthy periods of enforced remote working have demonstrated that, for any group of employees, both can sometimes be true.
Working from home during the pandemic loosened UK professionals’ ties with the consultancies or law or accountancy firms that employed them, the Financial Times recently reported. The lifting of lockdown then encouraged job-hopping because candidates could now bond with prospective employers face to face.
These are two sides of the “out of sight, out of mind” coin: heads, the isolation of remote working reduces loyalty to your existing employer; tails, the revival of in-person encounters encourages you to form an attachment with a new one.
In the “absence makes the heart grows fonder” camp, though, sits work by the Financial Services Culture Board. Its 2020 assessment of thousands of UK banking staff detected improvements in scores for feedback, leaders’ honesty, and wellbeing. Those scores fell back slightly this year, but remained more positive than in 2019. Jenny Robinson, the FSCB’s senior behavioural scientist, suggests people might have felt “they were able to use their judgment and autonomy” more when working remotely.
Then there is a study by the Oliver Wyman Forum that found a desire for more flexibility and a better work-life balance, rather than a hunger to return to the office, were the most important reasons for leaving or wanting to leave a job, after the quest for more money.
The sweet spot is hard to hit. Undermanaged remote-working staff can feel neglected, leading to bad consequences, from job dissatisfaction to burnout and fraud.
Another poll this year, by the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors, highlighted the risk of a “post-pandemic organisational culture crisis”. “How do employees maintain their strong attachment to the business, continue to experience the shared purpose, values and sense of community within their organisation and uphold expected behaviours in the absence of the old office-centric in-person interactions?” asked Heli Mooney, head of internal audit at airline Ryanair.
Whether the office repels or attracts depends on where you sit in the hierarchy. Robinson identifies two “humps” — representing senior managers and junior employees or new starters. They are keener to return to the office than the staff in between. “How much a part of their organisation does someone feel if their integration has been a keyboard transfer in a car park?” one manager responded to the FSCB when asked what it meant to belong to a business that has “no unifying cultural experiences”.
As the FSCB points out, there is a difference between connectedness, which technology enabled during lockdown, and collaboration, which can be more difficult. Processes that bind in new or junior staff, such as desk-side learning from experienced staff, are hard to replicate online. That is one reason investment banks, which set great store by such methods, have spearheaded “return to the office” campaigns.
Organisational cultures are certainly being reshaped by the shock of coronavirus and its consequences. That this is creating fallout in the labour market is not a surprise to Kevin Rockmann, a management professor at George Mason University in Virginia. Not everyone who was satisfied in their job before the pandemic will be satisfied after it.
Rockmann and Michael Pratt of Boston College studied the unintended consequences of distributed work at an unnamed technology company in a 2015 paper for the Academy of Management Discoveries journal entitled “Contagious Offsite Work and the Lonely Office”. One central finding was that once a proportion of workers decided to operate remotely, the quality of work in the office was diminished. Staff found themselves “alone in a crowd, surrounded by people but not gaining any meaningful social contact in the on-site office” and ultimately chose to work off-site.
That feeling will be familiar to anyone who has returned to the workplace only to find that the people they want to meet have chosen that day to work from home.
As employers seek to reverse the flow to remote work, Rockmann says they and employees, like their counterparts in 2015, may have to make choices. “This is going to lead to some shake-up,” he says. It is fine to experiment, he adds, but ultimately companies “need to put their flag in the ground” and make working arrangements clear, so staff can elect to stay or quit. “A lazy solution is to jump to an in-between model and try to make everybody happy: the average level of dissatisfaction [with that approach] will be high.”
Of course, employers, and even staff, may be “homesick” for a cultural and management ideal that never really existed before the pandemic, the FSCB’s Robinson says. But, as the crisis ebbs, they will also come to realise that corporate loyalty and culture depend less on where work is carried out and more on how it is done, celebrated, rewarded and overseen.
Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor