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Do You Know Why You Are Calling Workers Back to the Office?

August 12, 2022 Digital Workplace
Chris Ellis
By Chris Ellis

There was a point in the last two years when I believed the world had finally turned a corner in terms of where work happened.

More of us than ever before went from being deskbound in central offices to being able to work productively from anywhere we could find a good internet connection.

Over time, this evolved from being a superficial location change into something a lot more sophisticated. As more enabling technologies emerged, complex processes like shepherding new employees through orientation and in-role training became executable remotely as well.

Freed from an office desk, people also felt more productive. There was also the well-being boost from being able to work more flexibly. It looked, for all intents and purposes, like everybody would win.

But some employers weren’t — and still aren’t — ready to give up on traditional central office models just yet.

Economics plays a part. Many face the prospect of expensive long-term commercial leases for spaces they now struggle to fill. It’s understandably hard to justify the cost of these spaces staying empty while leases are active and rent is paid.

Ideological factors may also be at play. It may be viewed as less risky to return to what they know has worked in the past, than to embrace change or new ways of doing things.

Still, these are short-term drivers. They are not reasons to give up on a more flexible future.

For industries where work is mostly computer-based, deskless should still be the mid-to-long term goal for remodeling their current workplace.

When Organizations Go Deskless, Some Managers Get Restless

There’s a major debate underway in the US right now around return-to-office mandates. Current trends point to the re-coupling of work to a physical environment and a desk in the central office.

Seventy-five percent of managers favor “some type of in-person work,” 60% see a full-time return to the office happening “in the near future,” and half think a full-time return to office is what employees want, according to a survey by GoodHire.

That’s likely why, as of July 2022, 55% of US employees now work full-time onsite, compared to 30% in hybrid arrangements and 15% fully remotely.

But in-office mandates aren’t always effective. For example, only 49% of workers told to return to the office full-time actually do (although it must be said that only one-third of this cohort escaped reprimand or other consequences for ignoring a return directive).

In addition, while deskbound work might increase chance hallway encounters and spontaneous collaboration, it’s unclear whether the value that produces will be enough to offset a productivity decline caused by forcing staff back to their desks.

A large-scale 2015 study showed work-from-home arrangements improve employee productivity by 13% — and that trend held true throughout the pandemic, in spite of the circumstances under which people were working from home. Employers making in-office mandates should ask themselves whether seeing their workforce in-person is worth a 13% productivity decline.

Related Article: Minimum Viable Office Is the Future

Flexible Workplaces Are More Feasible Than Ever

Working outside of a central office is unrecognizable from pre-2020 versions, owing to the ongoing development and maturity of the models, as well as the vast amount of technology now developed to support workers.

The vision previously sold was one of enterprise workforce mobility, but the vision was usually let down in execution. Mobile workers worked offline for parts of the day and then had to resync with head office systems at day’s end. There was no always-on, real-time responsiveness or connection.

Top businesses may also have tried precursor deskless models such as hot-desking and activity-based working. These trialed the idea of workers not having an assigned desk; however, there was still a one-to-one relationship between people and desks. People were just switching their daily location within the office, not challenging the four-walls boundary.

Related Article: Why Hybrid Working Won't Stick

Today's Workplace Looks Very Different

The ratio of office goers to remote workers is changing. Companies are no longer expecting everyone to come into the office all at once. They understand that employees’ reasons for coming in are different now: some might do it to socialize, others for a change of scenery, or because the office is convenient to an errand or activity they need to undertake. This type of model requires more flexibility (and fewer desks).

Technologies that enable this style of work have greatly improved. People no longer need to be tied to a desk or a desktop. They can use mobile apps to prepare, e-sign, and return contracts and other documentation — no printer or scanner required.

New employee onboarding is another example of a traditionally office-bound process that works in remote environments. It can take eight months before a new hire is fully productive. In the office, a ‘buddy’ is often assigned to a new recruit to guide them. Advances in process mapping tools have changed this, to the point where new hires can see what is expected of them and how they should operate. When everything is clearly mapped out, there should be few questions left to ask — and most of the onboarding can safely happen remotely.

In the future, the metaverse will likely augment our work environments, wherever we are, providing a virtual place for workers to socialize and collaborate. When this happens, reasons for workers to attend a physical office space are likely to dwindle even further.

About the Author

Chris Ellis, technical director at Nintex, gained invaluable experience in SharePoint, Office 365 and the Nintex Platform as a pre-sales solution specialist within the partner network. Hailing from Aberdeen in Scotland, his work with the Nintex Platform exposed him to the full lifecycle from analysis and requirement gathering to delivery, support and training, contributing across a spectrum of projects in various industries and in some interesting places.


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