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Goodbye open office, and hello hybrids

Companies are due to prep for hybrid-office models, and a rework in organisational culture

Organisations that begin planning for such a fundamental change may come out better from this shakeout.

SEE you in the office . . . in July next year. That's the message US tech giants are sending to their staff who are mostly working from home. The early heads-up that remote work is to stay for longer is meant to provide more certainty to employees in an uncertain time. As Google's chief executive Sundar Pichai wrote in an email to employees, he hopes that this latest deadline "will offer the flexibility you need to balance work with taking care of yourselves and your loved ones over the next 12 months", reported The New York Times.

A recent report on remote working's benefits and drawbacks sets things in perspective for employees, including managers. US communications platform Slack surveyed office workers in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia between June 30 and mid-August this year. These 9,032 knowledge workers overall said that they are more satisfied with working remotely than they were with office-based work. The biggest boost was in work-life balance, showed the inaugural Remote Employee Experience Index.

Likewise, over in Singapore, almost three quarters of employees expect that work-life balance will improve as working from home regularly becomes a permanent work option, UOB's Asean Consumer Sentiment Study this week showed.

Still, 72 per cent of the global knowledge workers polled by Slack would prefer a hybrid arrangement that combines the home and the office, because some workers' broader sense of belonging appears to be worse when working from home. A big positive benefit is that remote work has largely eliminated daily commuting, with US office workers spending on average, nearly an hour, on their commutes. "Workers worldwide seem relieved to cross it off their daily routine," the report said. "While the commute might offer a mental transition period for some, it's clear that many workers prefer the extra time that a commute-free workday affords. Skipping the daily commute also comes with cost savings, and allows for more time with family."

But existing cultural norms hinder some benefits of remote working. Notably, employees in Japan are more than twice as likely to say that their job cannot be done remotely at all when compared with employees in the US or the UK.

They are also more likely to say that working from home is worse for their productivity than any other country. This makes sense once we consider that Japanese office employees have an overworking culture. Some have been known to deliberately fall asleep and let out thundering snores at their desks. The goal is to signal to the workplace how much time they've been spending in the office. Eliminating that "face time" in the office can be crippling for them.

Remote working has also been less successful than they should be because of frequent "status meetings". More than half of all workers polled are attending weekly meetings to share updates with their team - yet these only reduce workers' connection and camaraderie. To add, incessant video calls are tiring, even to tech firm CEOs like Microsoft's Satya Nadella. Instead, office workers operating from home create a better sense of belonging from unscheduled updates that focus more on team achievements. This change is one for managers to adapt to as a skill, with the same report showing that in fact, people managers, especially middle managers, face some of the most acute challenges in adapting to remote work.

"In the remote work world, the role of the manager has shifted from gatekeeper to coach and social connector. Social ties are more difficult to build and maintain in a digital-first workplace," the report said. "Organisations need to devote time and resources to providing people managers with new tools to enable them to coach and connect with their teams."

One final drawback of remote working often talked about is the lack of structure that the office environment provides. Only two-thirds of the polled knowledge workers report talking daily breaks (in part due to those debilitating status meetings). The upside is that those who are intentional about planning their workday see a significant improvement to their productivity. Managers also play a big part in ensuring workers take meaningful breaks to make remote working more viable. Remote work shouldn't mean more work, but higher-quality work output with more flexible schedules.

To be sure, some workers still crave more of the office than others. For some, it is a privilege to be able to work - in peace - at home. Some employees may not have the luxury to carve out a dedicated working space. As Alison Green, who runs the website Ask a Manager puts it in a Slate report, enlightened employers must balance the needs of employees who have been more productive at home, and those who are miserable there. "This has been a massive, albeit imperfect, experiment in how well large-scale working from home can work, and for whom it works for and for whom it doesn't. This is important data for companies to consider as they decide what their workplace looks like, and where it's located, in the future."

The future of office work is due for a paradigm shift. Organisations that begin planning for such a fundamental change may come out better from this shakeout.

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