With contribution from John Penhale. This blog post is the first in a series from the Institute on Governance and our partners which examines the Future of Work. To stay up to date, follow along on our blog, or sign up for our newsletter to get exclusive access to posts before they go live!
It’s been just over 2 years since the first cases of COVID-19 were appearing in North America.
At that time, some organizations were experimenting with telework, yet office space was still the primary focus of organizational structure.
In the federal government, along with a lot of other employers, employees were sent to work from home to slow the spread of the virus.
A lot of work has happened since then and working from home has rapidly become the new normal. Few could have anticipated the long-lasting, fundamentals changes organizations have felt as a result of the pandemic.
Return to the office has been a point of discussion since the offices were closed. A lot of discussions have taken place about how to balance the new realities and priorities of today’s workers.
The resulting default position for most is a hybrid workplace – a vague mid-point between the traditional office space and remote work.
The hybrid workplace is a comfortable solution to an intractable problem. Fully remote workers have a lot of flexibility, and it is difficult to “track them” in a traditional sense.
Workers have too many work profiles and too many issues, constraints or wishes about what they would like. It is a daunting prospect to try to respond to all of this variation without having a detailed understanding of those (and other) variables that affect employees, management, and those the organizations serve.
This all leads to the hybrid workplace as the organizational response, but leaves us with an important question:
Is the hybrid workplace really an answer?
Some employees are thriving, and some are not.
Employees are suddenly liberated in ways they never expected. Organizations are learning work can happen at any time, in any place.
What difference does it make if you are sitting in a room in a house in Ottawa, a cottage in P.E.I., looking at the beach in Florida, or anywhere in between?
The answer is effectively nothing – except if you are expected to go to a specific building in a specific city on some expected schedule that may mean nothing to the employee.
If an employee has a desire to relocate to another location but wants to continue working, it comes down to a simple question: Can the employee work remotely from a location that precludes physical entry to a site or does the employee change their employer to facilitate that opportunity?
Once talented employees start to look at the second alternative, most hybrid workplans in the world will fail in a primordial requirement for organizations – finding, developing, and retaining talent.
An employee, followed by more employees, will start to leave.
Organizations will be either beneficiaries of new talent or donators of talent that organizations will find difficult to replace.
Keep in mind this outcome, all other things being equal, is a losing proposition for the hybrid workplace.
So, is it a simple fix of not enforcing the “return to office” for some workers in a hybrid environment?
Likely it isn’t, as there are many factors that could be at play for employees not interested in physical office presence. Given management’s oversight role and responsibility for productivity and prudence, new tools are needed to manage.
Clearly, a laissez-faire approach may seem to be the only viable alternative: either employees are able to work remotely, or they can leave the employer and work where they have that opportunity.
Hybrid seems to be the only solution and not a solution at the same time.
This blog post is the first in a series from the Institute on Governance and our partners which examines the Future of Work. To stay up to date, follow along on our blog, or sign up for our newsletter to get exclusive access to posts before they go live!