Why Go Back to the Office?

by Joseph Swerdzewski

Many employees will have to make decisions about whether they want to go back into an office environment. Some employees will decide whether they will continue to work for their current employer. For many employees it’s been over a year and a half since they were regularly working or working at all in an office environment. Should management require employees to return to an office centric routine? Is working from home good for your career? Do we need as many supervisors if very few work in the office? Is it good for employees to always work from home? Can you get promoted if you work from home and others don’t. Can you build a sense of loyalty, if employees rarely come together in the office? Do you lose the opportunity for innovation sparked by employee interaction?

 

I don’t pretend to have answers to all these questions as well as the many others that are being asked but I do have some observations. For the first 45 years of my work life, work meant going to a place where I performed the work I was being paid to do. For the most part that meant commuting to an office. Sometimes the commute was short, maybe 15 minutes and sometimes it was monumental like the one when I lived in Washington DC which somedays seemed like it took forever or even longer. It also meant work hours were prescribed for everyone – 8-hour day, five days a week. Sometimes work entailed traveling to various places to perform work but for the most part it was in the office. I had meetings where everyone would gather together or some meetings where just segments of the work force would meet. People could come to my office to ask questions or provide information or I could go to their offices. We got to know each other and said hello in the hall ways. People who were not employees could make appointments to see me and would come to my office. There was a dress code that employees were expected to conform to. The configuration of the office was something in a unionized environment that unions and management fought about with one of the big issues being who got a window.

 

Supervisors, in the office, directed employees, evaluated their work and held performance discussions. One of the most common conduct issues for employees working in an office related to hours of work such as tardiness. If an employee was late for work the employee was tardy. If it happened often enough the employee could be disciplined or even removed.

 

The introduction of computers changed office life quite a bit.  When my office work life started there were a number of clericals who typed documents and letters. Yes, as my sons say I started work in pre-historic times. The position of typist is long gone. With a computer on every desk, employees are expected to type their own work. When computers were introduced no one foresaw that it would lead to people being able to do their work at home. Also, video conferencing has led to even less of a need for employees to be in the office. All those meetings in the office I had before, can easily be accommodated by MS Teams, Zoom, Skype and multiple other internet video systems.

 

The pandemic has created a huge need for telework. It is safer for employees to be at home than to be in a work place. That’s the basic argument.  What has happened is that many employees and supervisors have gotten used to working from home and have a hard time believing there is a reason to go back into an office environment. All sorts of jobs which in the past may not have been considered telework eligible suddenly because of Covid became eligible for telework. However, there are still many jobs which will most likely never be eligible for telework. It’s hard to think of first responders teleworking. Maybe some of them such as people taking emergency calls and dispatchers can telework. But how does a firefighter or police officer fight a fire or arrest a felon from home? 80% of American jobs are sedentary meaning they can be done sitting down. It is unclear what percentage of this 80% are involved in live customer contact. So much customer contact is done on the phone or by computer. Recent service on my computer was done by a technician located in Manila who was working for an American company.

 

The work force is very quickly being divided into two camps: those who can telework and those who can’t. The line used to be more blurred by a list of employees who were deemed ineligible to telework by management for various reasons. That line was almost erased when management had no choice but to allow most of the ineligibles to telework because of Covid. There is a further division between those who can telework fulltime and those who must split time between home and the office. Many, who teleworked parttime in the past now are allowed to telework full time because of Covid. There were arguments about how far away a teleworker could live from the assigned duty station. Now many can live anywhere they want.  

 

Having been involved in numerous negotiations involving telework the major issues were almost always concerning: who was eligible to telework, how many days a week could employees telework, what were the hours of work of teleworking employees, employee responsibility for being able to respond to contact by management and how and when contact would be made, the location where employees could telework from, and how to terminate telework. More importantly quite often the debate between the parties clearly showed a philosophical divide between management and union over the value of telework. The last Administration sent a clear message that employee telework should be limited or eliminated where possible.

 

Covid changed, almost overnight, management‘s approach to telework. Covid didn’t create telework. Telework already existed and was expanding before Covid. It just speeded up and enhanced changes which were already taking place. What COVID did do is weaken many of the arguments against it use by staunch adversaries of telework. With their offices closed down management had no alternative but to allow expanded telework. Employees have gotten to like this expanded version of telework and it is going to be difficult to put the horse back in the barn, Let’s look at the pros and cons of telework:

 

Changing the Rules

Before Covid many employers had strict rules about where an employee could actually perform telework. Often employees were limited to the local commuting area where the office was located. This was so they could easily come in to the office if needed, on what would otherwise be a teleworking day.  Now employees can live far from the work site. Teleworkers were not permitted to have children in the home while teleworking. With the closing of many daycare centers as result of Covid, many parents had no option but to telework with children in the home. They have now gotten used to this. Many teleworkers were required to work the same hours while teleworking as they worked while in the office. Now there is more flexibility as to when work must be accomplished as long as required ZOOM, MS Teams and others video meetings are attended.

 

Let’s look at the pros and cons of teleworking and see how Covid has changed them:

 

Pro:

Increased productivity: Employees can concentrate more at home than they can in the office. Some offices allowed episodic telework for just this purpose. One definition of episodic telework is that employees could not telework full time but could telework when needed and specifically approved. This type telework was used often for special projects. Many believe they can get more done at home without the constant interruptions that occur in the office. Now telework is applied to all work done by an employee.

 

Con:

Loss of productivity: Many managers opposed telework because they believed it led to a loss of productivity. If you couldn’t see the employees, how did you know they were working. Some employees will be productive no matter what environment they are working in. Others need more attention which may or may not be able to be successfully provided remotely. With the advent of large scale telework there has not been an analysis that I have seen as to the overall effect on productivity. Right now, it is hard to tell whether large scale use of telework has led to a decrease in productivity.

 

Pro:

Save on cost of office space  

Not requiring offices saves money. Even before Covid many employers were cutting back on office space by introducing office sharing, expanded telework and the use of remote employees who never came in the office. Telework has accelerated the reduction in the amount of office space rented throughout the country.

 

Con:

Contribution to employee’s cost of maintaining remote office.

As more employers require employees work from home it is easily foreseeable that employees will start asking for compensation for the use of space in their homes dedicated to their job, cell phone usage costs, and various other costs associated with working out of a home such as utilities. It may not be just a question of pay but it also what is paid for an employee’s home office.

 

Pro:

Increased flexibility for employees

Telework increases the flexibility of employees’ work life. They have more ability to set their work hours and work locations. It reduces their commute and thereby adds extra hours to their day for pursuits other than work. It can also be a recruiting inducement. In the past employees could only ask if they could telework as part of a new job now, they can require telework.

 

Con:

Increased difficulty of supervising employees

Some employees need considerably more supervision than others. A telework environment can make it more difficult to supervise employees with performance problems. It may be harder to tell whether employees are putting in the time necessary to accomplish their assigned tasks. The role of a supervisor in a telework only or predominantly telework work place must evolve. Communication with employees must be greatly improved and supervisors must be more proactive in engaging employees who they rarely see.

 

Con:

Lack of in person interaction among employees.

Telework can lead to a lack of identifying with an organization. Interpersonal interaction can have a very positive impact on the development of identity with an organization which can lead to loyalty. People meeting in person can lead to collaboration which may not be as easily accomplished using Zoom. If you only interact remotely, it is difficult to build those ties which bind an organization together.

 

Con:

Electronic Surveillance

Since supervisors are not able to physically watch employees at work, they may feel it necessary to do electronic surveillance of employees while they work at home. Supervisors are able to monitor employees work lows remotely which allows for a new kind of management oversight. According to an article in Government Executive (Eric Katz, September 9, 2021)the Social Security Administration inspector general’s office has conducted surveys of computer logs and telephone records of its employees aiming to ensure its employees were engaging in work activities at the proper times. The employees complain the draconian oversight is creating a “dysfunctional” work environment. As a result of these electronic probes employees have been disciplined and removed. Instead of providing employees more freedom to employees, telework with systematic electronic surveillance may be considered to be providing less freedom than work in the office.

 

The role of the office and supervisors.

The role of the office and supervisors must be redefined. The office is no longer the only place where work can be done for a large segment of the work force. As one high ranking manager once said: Work is what you do not where you do it. There must be a balance between work that can be done remotely and work that can best be done in an office environment. Opportunities must be provided for employees to interact in person on a regular basis to create the ties which can lead to collaboration and innovation in the work place. Supervisors must increase communication with remote employees and reevaluate what it means to supervise remote employees. Ways of monitoring employees’ work must be developed which do not create an overly intrusive approach to management.  

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