Remote work or back to the office? The calculation just shifted again

Managers who rely on old assumptions about how jobs get done are going to be badly disappointed.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director on
Developer with laptop at night.

Developer with laptop at night.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Managers with grand plans to get their staff back in the office should get ready to be disappointed.

The biggest reason? The office politics balance of power has – at least for now – shifted. And that shift has been in favour of the workers, not the bosses.

Here's what's happening: many knowledge workers have now spent plenty of time working remotely and have proved (to themselves at least) that they can be as effective at home as they are in the office.

SEE: The hybrid work divide: Managers think tech is the answer - but staff disagree

What's more, that shift to remote working has improved the work-life balance for many (but not all) by giving them a bit more flexibility. This has not gone unnoticed.

On top of that, cutting out all that travel is good for both their bank balances and the environment. And as the cost of living squeeze continues, all of this will be at the front of workers' minds when managers ask them to be back in the office full time. 

No surprise then, that call for workers to return to the office are causing anxiety amongst employees struggling with work-life balance and rising costs of living, as we reported last week. 

Many workers even think that if the boss wants them back in the office full time, then they should be paid more

And those workers who do begrudgingly return to the office often find themselves marooned, sitting in sparsely habited offices doing video conferences with managers who are still at home. 

All of this means that for many workers the calculation about the return to the office has shifted again, whether the boss realises, or not. 

While managers might be expecting staff back in the office, they are facing much more resistance than expected. And don't forget there is plenty of opportunity for many people (in particular for developers and others in tech) to switch jobs.

SEE: 'I used to run a pub, now I work in tech'. Career changers on why they made the switch to IT

This is going to make life pretty hard for the managers who continue to operate by old assumptions.

First, they should no longer assume that staff are only productive in the office (indeed, if that's the case then that's perhaps more a reflection on their lack of skills and empathy as a manager as anything else).

Second, at least right now, they cannot assume that they have the upper hand when in comes to deciding how and when work is done.

And third, they shouldn't assume that technology alone is the answer. Adding Zooms and Slacks will help get the job done for sure, but staff are more worried about recreating office culture and ensuring they can achieve the recognition they deserve for the work they've done. And yes, it might seem there's a contradiction between the desire to work remotely and the nostalgia for teamwork and corporate culture. There is, and it's going to be very, very hard to resolve.

But finally, and perhaps most importantly, managers shouldn't assume that the old ways of doing things are ever coming back.

For many staff, the old habit of trekking to a place of work is long forgotten. For anyone who joined the workforce during the past two years, the office 9 to 5 has never happened at all. Airbnb chief Brian Chesky said last week that the "office as we know it is over" which means the office "has to do something a home can't do". 

Figuring out quite what that is, and balancing the competing demands of managers and staff, is the real challenge ahead.


ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening take on the week in tech, written by members of our editorial team. We're a global team so this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US, and 10:00PM GMT in London.



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