There is a clear divide across the Asia-Pacific region between employees who have embraced working from home during the global pandemic and those who can’t wait to return to the office. Korn Ferry colleagues Tania Bergers (Team #WFH) and Brent Miller (Team Office) make arguments for both sides of the story – and find some middle ground in a hybrid model.
While COVID gave us no choice but to conduct a global ‘working from home’ experiment, it also gave us the chance to re-examine what we really want from work – and show just how productive we can be outside the office. There were certainly personal and professional gains. But at what cost to culture and collaboration?
What are employees telling us they want right now?
Tania: Flexibility has become the new battleground for retention, with most professionals saying they want to work remotely when it suits them. If they aren’t given that option, they are resigning – at record rates, as we are seeing in ‘the Big Quit’.
For some employees, working from home gives them to chance to connect with things they were missing – more time with family, more time for exercise, less time commuting. For others, remote working gives them the freedom to be themselves – a big win for diversity and inclusion. Going back to the office full time would mean giving up these gains – and the flexibility that helped them feel more productive, engaged and committed to their work.
Brent: We need to remember different roles and different people need different work arrangements. So it’s important to give people a choice. And of course, there are obviously many jobs that simply can’t be done from home.
Not everyone can sustain productivity and engagement working in isolation. Many people find their energy through face-to-face interactions, and socialisation is a strong reason they enjoy their work – this is especially the case for younger employees.
New employees have missed the chance to build important workplace relationships during group onboarding sessions, or by the coffee machine. And for some employees, the work-from-home set-up may be less than ideal. It also depends on the type of technology available – not all businesses or employees have access to 5G, Zoom, or even a laptop.
Then there is Zoom fatigue and the blurring of boundaries between work and home life. Many senior leaders we speak to are concerned about mental health issues and burnout – this is probably the most significant issue for a full-time work from home model.
So where would leaders prefer their teams to be?
Tania: In the Asia-Pacific region, family-owned companies tend to value face-to-face meetings and relationships more – but all employers are conscious of putting health and safety first, especially if coronavirus cases continue to surge in their country.
There certainly is some tension here – one study found 83% of global CEOs want their staff back in the office in 2021, yet another found less than 10% of US professionals want to return to the office full-time.
Brent: You can understand it though – many CEOs and senior managers believe it will make it easier for them to be more effective as leaders. They can guide, coach and mentor in real-time, without scheduling another Zoom catch up. Those interactions feel artificial, whereas providing feedback and acknowledging effort in person is more natural and human. I certainly miss those richer ‘on the fly’ conversations, and the subtle insights you get from working alongside others in the office.
What do we know about the longer-term impacts of working remotely?
Tania: Hybrid workplaces have been around for some time – in the Asia-Pacific region, our recent Spot Survey indicates 41% of employees in ‘remote-able’ roles (excluding, for example, factory production) were already able to work remotely part of the time before the pandemic. And 11% could work remotely all the time. The same survey suggests 63% of those employees will be able to work remotely for part of the week post-pandemic, and 17% will be able to work remotely full-time.
So there is a step-change here – and it’s because research indicates hybrid workplaces are both productive and effective. A recent study found 63% of high-revenue growth companies have adopted a hybrid work model.
Brent: It’s too soon to say what the long-term impacts of completely dispersed workforces will be. Once new workplace policies – like global online design platform Canva’s expectation employees only need to come in eight times a year – take effect, we’ll start to see what this will mean for things like performance, retention and innovation. However, it is important to remember that flexible working was part of the employment proposition for some companies well before the pandemic – a lot of the impact, positive or negative, comes down to individual workplace culture.
How does working from home or the office impact collaboration and culture?
Tania: Even the staunchest remote work sceptics have to acknowledge the way technology has overcome remote collaboration barriers. We have high-speed internet, 5G connections and more affordable access to high-definition AV platforms like Zoom and Teams.
Brent: Research does show co-location helps build trust and collaboration, thanks to the opportunity for face-to-face conversations.5 When you are working in close proximity, you can develop and maintain relationships that foster mutual trust and a greater sense of belonging. Shared values are more visible in everyday behaviours. We are still some way from being able to sustain a workplace culture without some physical interaction.
If you could only use one word to sum up your argument, what would it be?
Tania: Focus. In a recent Korn Ferry survey, 74% of professionals say they have more energy and focus when working from home, and 58% said they are more productive. Without the distractions of open-plan offices, they can choose how to respond to interruptions.
Brent: Speed. Not in productivity, but how we make decisions. Let’s say you’re in an investment firm and a client needs an instant answer – do you wait for an email reply from the analyst, or try to pin them down for a Zoom meeting? If you’re in the same office, you can have a quicker exchange. In this fast-paced market, you need rapid decision making just to meet customer expectations.
Is there a way to get the best of both worlds?
Tania: There is certainly a movement towards the hybrid model. What unites those who want to work from home and those who prefer to work in the office is a desire for autonomy – to be able to work where and how they want, when it suits them. Survey your teams to find out what did and didn’t work for your business during the pandemic – if virtual meetings were as effective as face-to-face, you may not need to resume old habits.
Brent: This is also an opportunity for organisations to re-fit their workplaces for the future. Instead of open plan workstations, can you create spaces that encourage mutual learning, co-creation and honest conversations? In a hybrid model, workplaces could be the place for culture, team-building and joint problem-solving, while remote work might be for cognitive or tasks that require deeper focus. Think about what your business needs – the one thing we have all learned from this experience is nothing is black or white.
Making hybrid work
For leaders and managers, adapting to a hybrid future means challenging traditional assumptions about engagement. For example, there are alternative ways to bring people together away from a fixed office – from virtual team building to immersion labs, client visits or offsites. Instead of requiring everyone to come to the office on the same three days, encourage teams to determine the collaboration schedule that works for them.
It’s all about empowering more people to get work done where, when and how they prefer. And with a shift away from the extreme ends of the debate spectrum towards a hybrid middle ground, greater choice and flexibility might be one positive that emerges from the pandemic.
To learn more about making the new hybrid workplace work for you, read our paper The Future is Flexible.