Rushing back to office | Business Standard Column

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There’s a real fear that senior colleagues, who can’t stand the idea that one of their own has the privilege of working remotely, could end up undermining his position

Indrajit Gupta

“I am not a great fan of work from home at all. When people work from home, that institutional culture will slowly become weaker and weaker”

Two weeks ago, speaking at a summit organised by Deccan Herald, Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy stirred up a hornet’s nest. Many leaders —particularly the older lot —agreed wholeheartedly with him. Covid cases had come down significantly. If children had gone back to school, why not get back to work from office, they asked.

Mr Murthy is not the only one echoing the sentiment. David Solomon, chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, the blue-blooded investment bank, reopened his 44-story headquarters in lower Manhattan, and ordered all his employees to work from office five days (or more) a week from February 1. On day one, despite his diktat and a two-week notice, only half the staff turned up, before inching up to around 60 per cent, according to Fortune.

These sentiments clearly reflect the widespread impatience CEOs suffer from worldwide. Many business leaders would wholeheartedly agree with this full tilt, back-to-office policy, but are hesitant to say so publicly. They fear alienating some sections of employees who’ve gotten used to work from home and also demonstrated that the fear that remote work adversely impacts productivity is largely unfounded. A few that have mustered up the courage to nudge their staff to come back to office every day have either met with huge resistance or faced threats of resignation. Even hiring new employees has become a challenge —unless they show evidence of flexible workplace policies that allow either hybrid or permanent remote work.

This tussle isn’t going away in a hurry. Given the sharp divisions among employees about what works best for them, it is not at all clear what we should do. In such an ambiguous scenario, what has prompted a few CEOs to adopt a one-size-fits-all policy?

Consider these four mindsets at play:

Clinging on to legacy: Given the sheer time that all of us spent at work, getting rid of offices raises profound questions about social isolation if we retreat to our homes for work and everything else, said Wharton professor Peter Cappelli in his book The Future of the Office. That’s why the office as a permanent fixture in white-collar work for centuries is now at stake, he said.

However, what is sauce for the goose isn’t sauce for the gander. Senior leaders miss office work, where they were able to take quick, spontaneous decisions by barging into each other’s cabin.

Now, a new generation of young people, adept at collaborating and getting things done remotely, savvy at using technology and tools, scoff at arguments put up by the likes of Mr Murthy.

This generational divide is playing out inside families. An HR stalwart who has been strongly advocating going back to office in his media columns told me that his son, also a senior HR leader at a big global tech firm, had been sympathising with him. Dad, you simply aren’t aware of how technology is changing the way work is done, he said! And to boot, his son and his family have relocated to Goa for the past many months —and they are loving it there.

Trappings of power: In many hierarchical organisations, leaders found themselves reduced to a tile on the Zoom screen. Now, this egalitarianism isn’t easy to accept, when they lost access to individual cabins, that special chair in the boardroom, and parking slots, which confer status. While they may not say so openly, not all leaders are comfortable giving up the privileges. After all, they have worked for decades to be entitled to such creature comforts!

Rebuilding the bedrock of trust, virtually: During the first wave of the pandemic, some of my friends in high places would ask me: How do we know if our remote teams are working? In response, I had a simple question for them: What makes you think that your team members might not be asking the same question about you?

If you have never had any past experience of remote work, such irrational fears are pretty common. So much so that a few firms even instituted mechanisms to snoop on employees, in gross violation of privacy norms. A friend who worked with one such giant Indian conglomerate said he was asked by an HR colleague why some of his junior colleagues weren’t speaking up in virtual meetings. He was stumped! Only to realise that his meetings were being monitored.

Some CEOs also crib about moonlighting, almost as if the phenomenon did not exist before Covid! If an employee is able to get work done in three hours and uses the rest of the time to work for others, all it points to is our inability to re-imagine existing employment models.

Out of sight, out of mind: A senior executive based in India, who was recently appointed to a leadership role in his global headquarters, was able to negotiate that he would work remotely. But within a couple of months, he realised that he would have to fly to the US for two weeks in a month. The tricky part: Since mid last year, the global CEO had been in office every day, forcing the entire global leadership team to follow suit.

There’s a real fear that senior colleagues, who can’t stand the idea that one of their own has the privilege of working remotely, could end up undermining his position.

The author is co-founder at Founding Fuel

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