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We’ll Build Back Better They Said — So Why Are People Returning to Offices En Masse?

The end of social restrictions show that old habits die hard

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In the midst of the pain caused by social lockdowns, calls to ‘build back better’ brought hope. The pandemic was considered a line in the sand, a moment to take stock, reflect and redesign elements of society for the better. Now, it’s not entirely clear what it means, but one clear way we can build back better is to offer people more flexibility in whether they work from home or go into the office.

I say that because one positive of lockdowns is that they proved people can work from home just as well as work in an office. And yet, while social lockdowns look like they are well and truly behind us, many people are being forced back into the office. Seemingly, offering flexibility in where people work is not a way to build back better, but why?

It all comes down to trust.

Managers do not trust that people are doing what they should be doing. The office makes sure people go in at a specific time, and leave at a specific time. It encourages discipline and conformity. And it gives managers the comfort of knowing that employees are staring at their screens when they should be.

Work culture is still locked into an ingrained way of doing things that has its origins in the industrial revolution. The expansion of factories in the nineteenth century had much more to do with employers enforcing discipline than it did with sheer technical efficiency.

It’s much the same today.

Surely an employee’s success in a role is defined by outputs, not by working specific hours set by an employer?

It’s an archaic way of seeing the world, and it all centres on the factory system and the fact management wants to be in control of what you do. It is about having power over you. It has nothing to do with your output but with making sure you are where you’re supposed to be at every moment of the day.

The economy

Then there are economic considerations.

Large parts of the economy depend on people spending the money they earn at work on stuff they need while working.

It may well defeat the point of going to work in the first place but think of all the bars, the restaurants, the cafes that depend on office workers to stay afloat. Without this daily trade, many of these companies would go bust because their business models centre on daily trade from office workers.

Then there is the transportation system. Think of all the train drivers and staff working in thriving cities where millions of people commute each day. With far fewer people, you would need fewer employees to operate the transportation sector.

But keeping things as they are because it will impact the economy is hardly a justification for things to stay as they are. If that were the case, the change would never happen because someone will always lose out from adaptation.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t adapt. It just means we need to account for those industries and sectors that would lose out from the majority working from home.

If we were always resistant to change, society would never develop. We could kiss goodbye to any hope of solving the climate crisis because solving it involves massive adaptation.

A line in the sand

The argument for flexible working was made so compelling because it quickly dawned on people how possible, maybe even better, it was for people to have flexibility in where they work.

Had the pandemic hit thirty years earlier, it would have brought an economic meltdown. But, due to the internet and laptops, everyone could adjust remarkably quickly to the new normal.

Apart from key workers like doctors, nurses and police officers, pretty much everyone can work from a laptop. While some sectors, particularly hospitality and airlines, were brutally impacted by the pandemic, many sectors flourished. You might have had to wait a little longer to get through to customer services, but by and large, companies adapted to the new normal remarkably quickly.

As everyone got used to working from home, the economy remained afloat. Food shelves have been restocked; the transportation network still works, deliveries from e-commerce have shot up. And this is all with people working remotely from their own homes.

If things had broken down and the economy was falling to pieces, then fine, clearly people working from home isn’t an option.

The pandemic was a forced acid test and showed why there is no reason for people to be compelled to work from offices any longer.

The internet literally is the solution to the office space. It allows people to interact from anywhere in the world. It gets rid of the need for everyone to go into an office.

A taster

The great challenge for employers now is that the pandemic has given people a taste of what is possible. They were still able to perform and do their jobs from the comfort of their own home. Now everyone knows that, there is a natural resistance to going back.

This is not to say everyone should be forced to work from home, but people should be given a choice.

If you want to work in the office, that’s fine, but having the freedom to work from home should now be an expectation.

It’s good for employers, who can save money on office space and no longer need to provide facilities for workers. And it’s good for workers who have improved well being. Everyone wins.

Unfortunately, though, decision making is never about what benefits working people. It is always about what benefits employers. And so long as employers seek to have control over employees, people will be forced to go into the office, even when they know they can perform just as well from home.

Soon enough, we’ll revert to the old way of doing things, with many a disheartened worker thinking about what could have been had common sense prevailed.