Commentary: Nobody wants to return to a five-day work week as it was

Commentary: Nobody wants to return to a five-day work week as it was

Bosses who want everyone back in the office full-time face a showdown with their workers, says the Financial Times' Pilita Clark.

FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in London
The offices of Fitch Ratings building appears empty in Canary Wharf, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), London, Britain on May 27, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

LONDON: A lockdown low point came last week when I stepped out of my apartment for the first time all day and discovered I was wearing a trainer on one foot and an Ugg boot on the other.

As far as I can tell, this happened because I had been wearing the Uggs at my desk all day and, halfway through taking them off to put on the trainers to go outside, I was distracted by a work call.

The trainers were so remarkably Ugg-like in terms of comfort that I failed to notice that I had only put one of them on before sailing out into the street. 

In the annals of workplace clothing failures, this was clearly not good. Yet I still prefer it to what I fear lurks ahead.

READ: Commentary: Why do some bosses still want their workers to come back to the office?

GROWING CALLS TO RETURN TO OFFICE

As vaccine rollouts prod public life back to some semblance of normality in more places, there is a growing risk that people like me will soon be told to ditch the slippers and other work-from-home comforts, and get back to the office five days a week.

Americans have come up with a two-word phrase that perfectly captures the dread this inspires: “hard pants”.

Technically, the term just means trousers with zips, buttons or non-elasticated waistbands — the opposite of the stretchy soft pants remote workers have lived in for the past year or so.

An employee works inside an almost empty office in Prague
An employee works inside an almost empty office of an airline service company Bluelink International, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Prague, Czech Republic, May 4, 2020. (Photo" REUTERS/David W Cerny_

But when people say they’ve had to “squeeze back into hard pants” to go into the office, I suspect they are talking about all the other reasons why pollsters consistently find that only a minority of employees who can work remotely want to return to HQ full-time. 

I speak here of the skipped breakfasts and frantic searches for presentable but too-tight clothes needed for the rush for an overpriced seat on a jampacked train. 

Not to mention the arrival at a desk too noisy to work at, where the only place to make a private phone call is the bathroom.

READ: Commentary: Why employers should cover WFH expenses

READ: Commentary: What if people don’t want to return to the office?

SHOULD IT BE ILLEGAL TO FORCE PEOPLE TO RETURN TO WORK?

No wonder 75 per cent of office workers in one large European survey published last week agreed it should be illegal for bosses to force staff to work from an office.

Of course some people, especially new recruits and younger workers, are itching to get into the same room as colleagues they barely know or need to learn from. 

I too am keen to see colleagues in the flesh again and I miss what Apple’s boss, Tim Cook, called the “hum of activity” in an email he sent last week telling staff they had to be back at their company desks at least three days a week by September.

But I do not know anyone who wants to return to the five-day working week as it was. That means an almighty showdown is looming between workers who want to be able to work at home at least one or two days a week, and employers who want all to be just as it was before 2020.

A huge, sought-after company such as Apple, which is inundated with job applicants, may be able to easily dictate terms.

So too a Wall Street bank such as JPMorgan Chase, whose chief executive, Jamie Dimon, last month said remote working was no good for young people, corporate culture, ideas generation or “those who want to hustle”.

(Can you say no to returning to the office? We posed this question to Adrian and one CEO in our Heart of the Matter podcast recorded in October 2020.)

A REVOLUTION IN THINKING ABOUT REMOTE WORKING

Yet the pandemic has unleashed a revolution in thinking about remote working that is likely to make it harder for many employers to demand a full-time office presence. 

“My sense is that that’s not going to fly,” says Nicole Sahin, chief executive of Globalisation Partners, a US-headquartered firm that helps companies navigate the process of hiring staff abroad.

“They’re going to have a hard time recruiting people if they require everybody to be in the office.”

READ: Commentary: Workers only return to office for the friendships and fellowship

READ: Commentary: Relationships in the office have become superficial

For the organisations in this category, there may be little choice but to plunge into the largely uncharted waters of hybrid working, where staff switch from home to office through the week.

Exactly how this should be done is one of the biggest workplace questions today. How affordable is it? What does it mean for office layouts?

Can people still keep their old desks or does hot-desking have to become the norm? Should staff all come in on the same days or not? And that is just the start of it.

Few companies know all the answers yet but like it or not, a lot will need to find out very soon.

Source: CNA/sl