Opinion: Companies win when employees are in the office, but threats, orders and mind-numbing work won’t get them back

In corporate boardrooms around the world, a heated debate is taking place to urge employees to return to the office. After more than two years of pandemic-forced remote work, many CEOs want employees in the office. Others have decided that employees can work from home for as long as they want.

Both sides have a compelling case, and the corporate world is at an inflection point. “Return to the office” executives say remote work is below average for everyone: employees; businesses and communities. They warn that in the medium term, remote work reduces economic growth and innovation. They point out that making remote work permanent is a fundamentally different equation, with distinct risks for businesses.

“Remote work” executives, meanwhile, describe self-examination and a shift in priorities during COVID, as workers seek better work-life balance. These advocates point to metrics showing that productivity has not suffered over the past two years and remind us that they are still engaged in a talent war. If remote work is what it takes to attract and retain the best, so be it.

After weighing these two positions, we concluded that there are specific downsides to remote work and its impact on employees, especially those just starting out in their careers.

Although young workers may cherish the flexibility of remote work, they pay a heavy price. They lack essential on-the-job training, informal face-to-face guidance, and in-person guidance from a mentor to help them navigate. These early years are the foundation of a young employee’s career. They hone their technical skills, build a network, and learn to negotiate and navigate organizational complexities. Without in-person training, their ability to successfully adapt to a company culture and find their career path can be impaired.

More experienced employees are also affected by remote work. First, their performance is not properly evaluated in virtual meetings. Everyone migrates to an indistinct mean without receiving adequate individual feedback. Second, and probably worse, employees often struggle to draw a line between work and personal life. Numerous polls underscore this point, noting that meetings have multiplied beyond reason and people find themselves answering emails in the middle of the night. Third, their work as managers has become more complex, particularly in integrating newcomers and managing professional development. This only increases the risk of burnout.

In a competitive business environment, where maintaining a technical advantage is essential, only extraordinary teamwork and the transmission of expertise and experience across generations allow a company to excel. This interaction is best achieved physically. Face-to-face online meetings work to a point, but not as well as meetings in a conference room where ideas are discussed and brainstormed until a solution emerges.

More than money

So how do companies make workers want to return to the office? Employers must give them a reason — not an order.

While addressing the challenges of travel and caregiving is essential, the bigger issue is the imperative for ‘meaning’.

In his masterful memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” author Viktor Frankel shows that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. Locked away at home during the pandemic, many workers discovered this idea. They wondered if their organization, or their job, gave them the meaning they were looking for in life.

Workers today will not return to BS jobs.

Today, the primary responsibility of a CEO and top management must be to create a meaningful workplace. This requirement begins with a corporate strategy that must resonate with all employees. Everyone needs to understand how they fit in, why their role is important, and how they connect to the rest of the business.

Unfortunately, most business strategies today fail to answer the most important questions: Why do we exist? What is the purpose of our business? Why is it important? These are the essential questions that need to be answered simply and concretely, not only by senior management, but by every manager in the organization.

Each position in a company must be meaningful and allow for personal fulfillment and professional development. Each role should be examined to see if it passes the test of meaning: does it carry real responsibilities? If not, the job should be revised or deleted. This is one of the key lessons of the past two years. Workers today will not return to BS jobs.

Organizational leaders must explore a new set of challenges, ones that will force them to rethink how to welcome and integrate newcomers. Additionally, organizations need to pass on experience and technical expertise across generations and maintain a sense of belonging among workers.

A hybrid approach, where employees spend most of their time in the office, would mitigate many new risks while preserving employee flexibility. We believe that many companies will eventually conclude that maintaining a corporate culture and long-term technical advantage requires a greater physical presence in the office, but more importantly ensuring that employees find meaning at their work.

Ramon de Oliveira is the director of AXA. George Stansfield is Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Corporate Secretary of the AXA Group.

After: So your boss asked you to go back to the office? Not everyone seems to jump at the chance

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