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WFH is dead! Long live WFO… again!

As the big blue-chip employers start to flex their muscles and demand staff return to the office at least a few days a week, are we witnessing the end of the world’s biggest failed workplace experiment? Or are there other drivers underpinning this apparent U-turn?

As the big blue-chip employers start to flex their muscles and demand staff return to the office at least a few days a week, are we witnessing the end of the world’s biggest failed workplace experiment? Or are there other drivers underpinning this apparent U-turn?

A clever guy once said to me, before you answer a question or make a comment, silently ask yourself the simple question, “why?” Because when you understand the motivation behind the question, you will understand the other person’s perspective.

I would like to say this piece of advice has served me well, and that I have always paused and reflected before answering – but that would be untrue! I know I should have asked “why?” many more times, but I’m not perfect, and – so it would appear – neither is Work from Home (WFH); certainly not as far as the mid-market and enterprise-scale employers are concerned, anyway.

I’m not alone in picking up on this slow and steady reversal of the much publicised and variously celebrated WFH movement”, spawned by the necessity of Covid-19 restrictions and embraced by union movements and “shower dodgers” the world over. [1]

In the Sunday Times, 3rd September 2023, there was a rather challenging article referencing the recent reversal of WFH from some high-profile City firms. The banking giant, Citi, has told its 12,500 staff they will monitor key card access to the workplace to ensure that employees turn up to work, at least three times a week, or face the removal of valuable bonuses.

Goldman Sachs have unapologetically been insisting employees attend the office five days a week since the lifting of pandemic restrictions. Black Rock, another huge City employer upped the ante from three to four days a week. Elon Musk (I confess to being in awe of this guy) has long dismissed any form of non-presenteeism. He even sleeps in his office when required. JP Morgan made it perfectly clear; you don’t need to work here, but if you want to – come to work!

But what about this constant stream of articles and interviews telling us that WFH and hybrid working is the future? Leaf back through The Times’ archives and there are numerous articles all positively extolling the virtues of doing anything other than Work from Office (WFO).

Common sense would indicate that turkeys don’t vote in favour of Christmas. So, is it any surprise – all things being equal (and they are not) – that employees would vote to reduce the number of days they need to travel to the office? It is quite obviously much more convenient not to have to travel to and from a fixed place of work. Not to mention the fact that it’s really rather nice to be able to pause for a second and do that odd little chore; pick the kids up; or take time to go to the gym for lunch. All good and hard to argue with – and undoubtedly good for an employee’s wellbeing.

However, despite the obvious employee wellbeing benefits, in what could easily be viewed as a coincidence, Lloyds and HSBC have made similar “back to school” announcements, aimed at reversing the “it’s here to stay” WFH/hybrid movement.

So, let’s pause a second before our natural bias leaps in and jumps to conclusions! Let’s ask ourselves the question, “why?”

Is it because firms have an over-supply of office space and are desperate to fill it up? Unlikely and mostly untrue. Many firms have shed office space during (and post the pandemic), perhaps assuming that WFH and hybrid is the future? In any event, even if they had an over-supply of office space, I am not sure there is much economic sense in “forcing” employees to fill the empty desks just because they exist.

Is it because the labour market was so disrupted post-Covid-19 by the “great resignation”? Did employees feel they had the whip hand and could demand WFH and/or hybrid roles, or simply take their labour elsewhere, safe in the knowledge that in the war for talent, somebody would give them what they want? After all, they were entitled to work from wherever they chose, and Covid-19 had (allegedly) proven that it was business as usual, regardless of where employees worked from.

Now, as the world enters a doubtless protracted period of economic uncertainty, characterised by interest rates being five times higher than they were just months ago; ever increasing rising costs of living; household name firms like Microsoft, X (formally known as Twitter), Meta (Facebook et al) making tens of thousands redundant, maybe the balance of power has switched from employee to employer? Certainly, the number of vacancies being advertised where location was irrelevant has fallen and will – in my opinion – quietly fade away almost entirely.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question “why?” Just because an employer no longer feels “forced” to offer WFH or hybrid, why – now that they can – would they demand that employees return to the office, either five days a week, or at least some of the working week? Especially if it works just as well as WFO did.

Quite obviously there must be some other reason(s).

Could it be that WFH/hybrid simply doesn’t “work as well” as WFO? This, of course, depends on your definition of “work as well”. If we park employee preference as our measure and instead use enterprise performance, we may see a different picture.

Whilst almost every WFH/WFO article I read cites a business owner that is thriving now they have switched to hybrid/WFH, there is a conspicuous void of large companies publishing their productivity stats. Those that must (publicly owned organisations) would appear to be thriving – on chaos – if the data is to be believed. HMRC were getting round to answering your call in six minutes back in 2018. Now, with most of their people WFH/hybrid (could be a coincidence of course), you are waiting more than 20 minutes.

And, according to The Institute of Customer Service’s July 2023 UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI), we are getting it more wrong than ever before! Here is the opening foreword from the July 2023 UKCSI report from Joanna Causon, Chief Executive at the Institute of Customer Service:

“The latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index results present a sobering, if perhaps unsurprising picture. Average customer satisfaction in the UK has fallen compared to last year and is at its lowest level since 2015. While the overall index has declined by 1.8 points, several findings give cause for concern. Every sector has lower customer satisfaction than a year ago…”

Again, this could be coincidental, but there is an undeniable correlation. Many of the firms that participate in the UKCSI survey are the mid-market and enterprise-scale firms who felt compelled to continue WFH/hybrid, beyond Covid-19 requirements.

There are other markers too. In a previous article I penned – kindly published by the HR Director – many of the same employers are reporting that attrition amongst recruits during the first 180 days is rising at record levels. The reason is that employees feel they are unable to do the job they have been hired to do. Why? Because the workplace has become – and continues to be – more complex, and workplace training is far less effective in a hybrid/WFH scenario, where employees are starved of on-the-job, peer-to-peer learning and support. The component that typically makes up around 70% of your in-role competence development.

The competency curve (i.e., speed to in-role competency) has lengthened, and standards are falling. If we could see the productivity data for private companies in the way we can see some of it for public organisations, I wonder if we would see a similar picture?

At Elephants Don’t Forget, we use Artificial Intelligence to help employers improve employee in-role productivity and performance – and have never been busier. But that might also be a coincidence.

The fact that most of us would prefer to work far less a year than we do – and far more on our terms rather than our employer’s – is a statement of preference that doesn’t necessarily translate into economic sense for an employer! My conclusion is that WFH/hybrid undeniably works for some roles, in some companies, and if, as an employee, the convenience factor this affords you is of primary importance, you will inevitably end up working for one of these employers.

However, employers like JP Morgan (and thousands of others) won’t be hiring you (or indeed retaining your services) because they have already worked out it is a sub-optimal operating model for their business. In the euphoria of immediate post-Covid-19, employee demand drove most firms to offer hybrid and WFH solutions for fear of losing “irreplaceable” talent. A few years on, in markedly different global economic conditions, employers are paying far more attention to the Profit & Loss (P&L) statement, and far less attention to the preferences of potentially inconvenienced employees.

Quite simply, if WFH/hybrid “worked just as well as WFO” then global mega-brands like these international banks would not be “forcing” their employees back to the office with threats of bonus removal and dismissal.

Whilst undeniably unpopular with turkeys, Christmas is here to stay. And profit and growth are king in the City – and pretty much in every other business in the world. The office is open for business and, if you want to work for these firms, in these sectors, that’s where you are going to be working in the future!

[1] Employees working from home spend nine minutes less each day showering, shaving, putting on make-up and deodorant. Source available here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenamcgregor/2022/02/02/less-deodorant-fewer-showers-no-makeup-the-nine-extra-minutes-some-americans-sneak-by-working-remote/

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