It seems for many employees, the benefits of working from home or even adopting a hybrid model are a thing of the past. Employees are returning to the grind of long commutes and losing hours in transit. What is driving this shift in sentiment? CEOs, who once rooted for remote work, have undergone a change of heart – many say that remote work hampers their ability to innovate.
That may not be the real reason, however. There is a good chance that the CEO and/or other managers feel they have lost control or visibility over their employees. Returning to a more traditional management approach, where everyone is within direct sight, might seem like a simpler solution.
The Myths of Workplace Innovation
I find it ironic that organisations say they want employees to come into the office because they cannot innovate at the same rate. What the last few years have demonstrated – and quite conclusively – is that employees can innovate wherever they are, if they are driven to it and have the right tools. So, organisations need to evaluate whether they have innovated on and evolved their hybrid and remote work solutions effectively, to continue to support hybrid work – and innovation.
What is confusing about this stance that many organisations are taking, is that when an organisation has multiple offices, they are effectively a hybrid business – they have had people working from different locations, but have never felt the need to get all their staff together for 3-5 days every week for organisation-wide innovation that is suddenly so important today.
The CEO of a tech research firm once said – the office used to be considered the place to get together to use the tools we need to innovate; but the reality is that the office is just one of the tools that businesses have, to drive their organisation forward. Ironically, this same CEO has recently called everyone back into the office 3 days a week!
Is Remote Work the Next Step in Employee Rights?
It has become clear that remote and hybrid work is the next step in employees getting greater rights. Many organisations fought against the five-day work weeks, claiming they wouldn’t make as much money as they did when employees worked whenever they were told. They fought against the 40-hour work week (in France some fought against the 35-hour work week!) They fight against the introduction of new public holidays, against increases to the minimum wages, against paid parental leave.
Some industries, companies, unions, and countries are looking to (or already have) formalised hybrid and remote work in their policies and regulations. More unions and businesses will do this – and employees will have choice.
People will have the option to work for an employer who wants their employees to come into the office – or work for someone else. And this will depend on preferences and working styles – some employees enjoy the time spent away from home and like the social nature of office environments. But many also like the extra time, money, and flexibility that remote work allows.
There might be many reasons why leadership teams would want employees to come into the office – and establishing and maintaining a common corporate culture would be a leading reason. But what they need to do is stop pretending it is about “innovation”. Innovation is possible while working remotely, as it is when working from separate offices or even different floors within the same building.
Evolving Employee Experience & Collaboration Needs
Organisations today face a challenge – and it is not the inability to innovate in a hybrid work environment! It is in their ability to deliver the employee experience that their employees want. This is more challenging now because there are more preferences, options, and technologies available. But it is established that organisations need to continue to evolve their employee experience.
Technology does and will continue to play an important role in keeping our employees connected and productive. AI – such as Microsoft Copilot – will continue to improve our productivity. But the management needs to evolve with the technology. If the senior management feels that connecting people will help to solve the current growth challenges in the business, then it becomes the role of managers to better connect people – not just teams in offices, but virtual teams across the entire organisation.
Organisations that have focused their energies on connecting their employees better, regardless of their location (such as REA in Australia), find that productivity and innovation rates are better than when people are physically together. What do they do differently?
- Managers find their roles have moved from supporting individual employees to connecting employees
- Documentation of progress and challenges means that everyone knows where to focus their energies
- Managed virtual (and in-person) meetings mean that everyone has a voice and gets to contribute (not the loudest, most talkative or most senior person)
Remote and hybrid workers are often well-positioned to come up with new and innovative ideas. Senior management can encourage innovation and risk-taking by creating a safe environment for employees to share their ideas and by providing them with the resources they need to develop and implement their ideas. Sometimes these resources are in an office – but they don’t have to be. Manufacturers are quickly moving to complete digital development, prototyping, and testing of their new and improved products and services. Digital is often faster, better, and more innovative than physical – but employees need to be allowed to embrace these new platforms and tools to drive better organisational and customer outcomes.
What the pandemic has taught us is that people are good at solving problems; they are good at innovating irrespective of whether their managers are watching or not.