Written by Les Brookes. 

Business leaders focusing on productivity and reducing overheads miss the point: human beings are social beasts so intentional, in-person interactions are critically important 

The summer break provided valuable thinking time for business leaders looking to firm up hybrid-working policies. A recent Gartner report calculated that 81% of the eligible workforce would operate either a hybrid or remote working model in the coming years. Hence, organisations need to change and become more flexible.

As the return-to-the-office debate rages, I’m concerned that the short and long-term wellbeing of the most important people – the employees – is not being considered enough. I worry that we are heading for a great depression if left unchecked. And that ultimately this will lead to productivity losses.

I don’t mean a lengthy financial downturn, although that is likely. Instead, I’m talking about general unhappiness felt by those who are encouraged to work away from the office without the necessary technical and emotional support.

Because from what I have read, seen and heard, most business leaders are currently more focused/concerned on driving efficiencies and improving productivity. Additionally, many managers forced to adopt a distributed work model don’t have the requisite skills to perform their primary task: managing staff.

While all this may seem obvious, the potential psychological impact on those at the other end of the laptop is seldom discussed in articles about hybrid working.

For example, a recent Financial Times article showed that only 12% of people are returning to the office on Fridays, and it certainly feels like Thursday is the new Friday. But mandating that employees should be at the workplace for a set number or certain days is too rigid.

Everyone is different, and what works for a leader will not be the same as a 23-year-old starting their career. Similarly, news pieces that explore the likely impact on local services, if office use is down, fail to address the most important issue for me.

 

Listen and learn from employees

Of course, how we work simply has to evolve. These changes have been spurred by events of the last three years. But taking the time to look at things from a recent graduate’s perspective – or, even better, listen to their wants and needs – might help business leaders create a more human-focused organisation.

Young people, especially those entering the workforce, are particularly at risk if their employer uses a hybrid or fully remote model. During the foundational period when they would most value face-to-face mentoring and training, plus learning valuable skills by osmosis in a thriving office setting, they are instead perched on the end of their beds and meeting colleagues virtually.

Undoubtedly, they will miss out on the in-workplace experience that people enjoyed before the pandemic. With social interactions and team bonding limited, in addition to restricted career development, hybrid work can be a lonely place. If this course is not changed, tomorrow’s leaders will lack real-world experience – could it be we have a lost generation of leaders? I hope not.

Many organisations are planning to go fully remote. However, I believe this bold move would be counterproductive to employees’ health in the long run. It would damage their well-being, which will, in turn, affect productivity and job churn. And it will do little for career development and teambuilding, which jeopardises the future of the business.

I don’t see enough big organisations reaching out to their employees to understand how they are coping with working from home or away from the office. As companies race ahead to crystallise new work policies, the divide between employer and employee is widening.

 

Widening the divide 

The business leaders making the big calls on this are likely to have large homes and work from their office, loft or second bedroom. The people who will be most impacted, though, won’t have that luxury. They will be switching on their laptops in the kitchen or even on their bed. There is no transition for them between work and home. They won’t have the mental and life enrichment that comes from spending even just two days a week in an office.

Unless human resources departments and managers realise this potential danger, that lack of physical interaction and career development will sink more people into a state of depression and anxiety. I don’t profess to be a psychologist, but we can all look at people around us to see how things are developing.

The conversations and thinking about hybrid working needs to be less about productivity or reducing costs and office space, and more about ensuring employees have the technical and emotional support to be productive. Ultimately, human interaction is always going to be better than computer interaction. Surely, if people are happy then productivity will be the outcome.

It appears some business leaders and members of the media are forgetting human beings are social beasts. I hope for the sake of society and especially those entering the workforce now that they remember what makes us all tick before time runs out.

 

About the author

Les Brookes is a business transformation expert and the CEO of Oliver Wight, working with some of the world’s leading organisations in Supply Chain Optimisation and Integrated Business Planning.