Commentary: After all this talk about flexible work, why are employers insisting on returning to the office full-time?
Remote work is not without its challenges. Hybrid work can be troublesome to implement. But employers shouldn’t forget pandemic lessons about the importance of flexibility and employee well-being, says HR expert Adrian Tan.
SINGAPORE: You may have seen this running joke on the Internet about how tone-deaf companies can be when it comes to employee well-being.
Company: We’d like to promote mental health in the workplace.
Employees: How about hiring more people so we feel less pressured and increasing our pay so we can keep up with the spiralling costs of living, so we’re not so stressed out?
Company: No, not like that. Try Yoga.
It would be funny if it didn’t feel so close to reality for many.
Almost half of Singaporeans have returned to the office full-time, according to a 2022 UOB study, even though more than 80 per cent prefer some form of flexible work arrangement. Only 52 per cent in a Randstad survey said they were provided remote work options.
It seems strange we’re rolling back this major pandemic gain. After all the talk about the importance of flexibility and remote work, it's hard to understand why some companies insist on a full-time return to the office.
Have employers already forgotten pandemic lessons about the importance of employee well-being?
SHORT-SIGHTEDNESS OR DISREGARD FOR EMPLOYEE WELL-BEING?
Perhaps it's a case of short-sightedness, with employers focused solely on returning to "business as usual" without considering the long-term effects on their employees.
Pandemic changes may have been sudden and profound but they happened only over about three years – a relative blip in many business life cycles. Employers had no choice when workplace capacity limits were in place, but now that they do, corporate inertia moves them to go back to way it has always been.
Or maybe it's a case of "out of sight, out of mind". After having to actively engage employees working remotely, do employers think well-being concerns have gone away just because employees are back in the office?
A majority of Singapore workers prefer to continue flexible work arrangements, according to a study by the Institute of Policy Studies which also found that workers have better mental well-being when their work arrangements matched their preferences.
PRODUCTIVITY AND RETENTION
It’s not as if workers haven't proven themselves to be productive during the pandemic years. Even though the learning curve for remote working was steep, eventual adjustments made one in three employees in Singapore feel more productive since they started working from home, according to a study by Qualtrics.
In the United States, it appears the workforce was less productive in 2022 than just a year earlier. Some analysts believe that burnout or a mandated return-to-office are part of the reason; others say teams are losing their cohesiveness due to a lack of office culture and social interaction. Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff recently said in a Slack message to employees that new hires during the pandemic years were facing lower productivity.
We need to be clear-eyed about this: Remote work is not without its challenges. Hybrid work can be troublesome to implement.
But what workers want is for corporate executives not to single-mindedly force them back to the office in the belief that this will make them work better.
Employers could very well shoot themselves in the foot. Studies during the pandemic showed that companies offering flexible work options see lower absenteeism and turnover rates. Companies that prioritise employee well-being are often seen as more attractive to potential employees, aiding in recruitment and retention.
LOSING BARGAINING POWER IN A SLOW ECONOMY
But with economic uncertainties ahead and the spectre of slow growth and possible recession in major economies, some employers may use this as an excuse to take advantage of employees. Why change if employees will not have the same bargaining power when times are tough as they do now in the tight labour market?
It's like playing a game of musical chairs, except the music never stops and the chairs constantly move. Just when employees feel comfortable with their current work arrangements, employers are yanking the rug out from under them.
It's a tricky situation, but employers shouldn’t be short-sighted here either. Hurting business productivity and ignoring employees now don’t sound like smart strategies while the economy is still growing.
Nor do they put the company in good stead if the recession does strike. Then, they must remember that the economy will eventually recover and they will be judged for not taking care of their employees during tough times.
It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. Offer a hybrid work option with certain days identified for teams to meet and collaborate in person and flexibility in work schedules. Be clear with employees why they are returning to the office - not just because this was how things were before.
Corporate teams can procure services to offer mental health and wellness support, but nothing beats a supportive boss and an understanding team.
Working together in the office can build that necessary rapport. But ordering people back into their cubicles full-time could hurt more than it helps.
Adrian Tan is a former HR entrepreneur turned marketing strategist who writes about the future of work.