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Remote work or in the office? Why the tide could turn again

The row about where and when we get our jobs done will rage for years. But a change could be on the way.
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Written by Steve Ranger, Editorial director, ZDNet on
Remote working from home. Freelancer workplace in kitchen with laptop, cup of coffee
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Remote, hybrid or just in the office: where and when we get our jobs done had become the biggest workplace debate of our times.

It's also a really good measure of the relative power of workers and bosses.

Right now, in many cases, the management are in a pretty weak position when it comes to office politics.

There are plenty of jobs out there for knowledge workers who aren't happy with how they are treated. And there is much truth to the adage that workers don't leave bad jobs they leave bad managers.

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The last two years has also taught many knowledge workers they can be efficient and have a better work-life balance with more remote working in their week, even if their micro-managing managers have struggled with the idea.

The hot job market and this enthusiasm for remote work has made it harder for companies to enforce their return-to-office mandates.

And, now, for anyone who joined a company in the last couple of years, some sort of remote or hybrid working is the only type of work they've ever known. Whether middle managers like it or not, hybrid and remote work is the new normal.

But that doesn't mean that things can't change again. And fast.

There's likely to be a testing time ahead, if as many indicators are suggesting, the economy starts to dip into difficult territory soon. 

That's the point at which the relative power of employers and employees may start to shift again. And it could be closer than many think.

There's some evidence that employers may already be offering fewer work from home jobs for developers, even in a strong market. Some bosses have even been issuing ultimatums to staff about getting back to the office or getting out. And while workers think they are personally great at working from home, they're not convinced about how hard their own colleagues are working.

Of course, there will be nuances to all of this. It could be that a worsening economic outlook convinces some organisations to downsize or get rid of their costly offices and switch to remote or hybrid working for everyone.

But it's perhaps more likely that bosses may feel that in a tougher economic climate they have a stronger bargaining position and can force staff back to the office – or else.

That could mean that for some companies the return-to-the-office plans that they reluctantly shelved will make a come-back.

Still, if managers really want people back in the office that's probably the wrong way to approach it.

Persuasion and explanation is a better policy. There are plenty of things that are better in the office, especially around building culture and innovation. And a good proportion of staff (particularly those at the earlier end of their career who can benefit from mentoring and networking) that can benefit from being around their peers.

Rather than waiting until they have the economic upper hand, bosses should explain why they think their plan is better - and back that up over time with evidence and data. That way they can build momentum behind their plans for office work, regardless of the economic outlook. Either way this is a debate that is going to run and run; expect twists and turns ahead.

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