Are we sure we still need to be in the office 40+ hours a week? The economy may suffer in the short term if we continue flexible working, but society suffers in the long term if we force a return to the office So, do we really need to return to full time work-from-office? I say no. Hear me out.
It’s 2022, and now that COVID-19 is not as serious a threat, we are collectively looking at figuring out how to move forwards (or backwards) to a post-pandemic reality. This includes the slew of opinion pieces we are bombarded with extolling both the perils and virtues of continued hybrid working (Hsu, 2022; Duncan, 2022; Sherman, 2022). It is time, therefore, to look at both the merits and consequences of not returning to the office.
Before doing my master’s degree, I was working in a large multi-national corporation in Singapore. As someone who had to work from home from November 2019 (read: before the global pandemic) because of a broken leg, but whose job required her to personally connect with as many colleagues as she could, let me tell you that working from an office is not the end-all solution. Before November 2019 I had been going in every day, and not once did I underestimate the power of working face to face in an office environment. However, working entirely from home didn’t stall my productivity either. If anything, the more flexible schedules allowed me to take better care of local and global relationships because I could catch colleagues at all hours of the day based on their own disparate schedules, and take proper breaks in between to deal with personal needs like physio and doctor’s visits, cooking, cleaning, or other household needs for myself and my family without scheduling set office hours or the pressure of commuting. The lack of travel to and from office, as well as huge savings on professionally mandated socialising via lunches, coffees, and drinks meant saving enough money that I was able to pay for my degree almost in full!
We saw during the height of the pandemic that our biggest collective fear is facing the consequences of the unknown, which is why the urgency we see from governments and companies in having people return to the office is understandable (Franklin, 2022; Lim, 2022; Forrest, 2021; Gordon and McGregor, 2022). It is far more comforting to revert to the familiar, and in this case, those in charge – from companies to governments, to university administrators – are keen to go back to what they know: physical attendance.
Let us give them credit: in-person connectivity has immeasurable benefits. To start with, an influx of staff back to office buildings will certainly help those businesses that rely on office spaces (think cleaners, the food and beverage industry [F&B], real estate), and by extension the families who depend on these businesses. In addition, it is undeniable that team rapports and knowledge sharing are built more effectively through face-to-face interactions. However, this is where the fallacy fails: it is misguided to assume office jobs are only truly effective when conducted from an office. Indeed, the pandemic has taught us otherwise, and forgetting this lesson will result in regressive consequences (Choudhry, 2020).
To be clear, no one questions the need to rebuild economies. This is a feat that takes both manpower and brainpower, but I would argue that the more of both we have, the faster and more efficiently we can rebuild. Working from an office once again limits brainpower to those who are able enough to reach the office in the first place (usually men, the able-bodied, youth, and for instance those who can afford or do not need childcare). In considering this state of affairs, we exclude hugely talented swathes of the community who, during COVID-19 were actually being given the opportunity to find employment through remote-working opportunities, including fully educated but full-time mothers, the retired and the elderly, and those with disabilities. Inherently, in forcing staff back to the office, we once again exclude these groups: fundamentally counter-productive to rebuilding.
It is true that maintaining a permanent hybrid working environment does pose risks, but inherently they are all short-term. The most obvious has already been mentioned – the financial strain on the office-dependent businesses and the families who depend on those businesses. By extension, businesses that have depended on in-person connectivity will also be affected, like the airline business. Just recently, British Airways announced the cancellation of 30,000 flights in 2022 alone (BBC, 2022). F&B and hotels are equally affected, as are their related supply chains (Jagt, 2022; Mijnke, Obermann and Hammers, 2022). But people and businesses are creative and resilient. They will find ways to reinvent the wheel and make it work for them. Indeed, considering the tenacity of human nature, we will endure – for instance, an option to convert existing unutilised office spaces into public utility spaces such as schools, day-cares, or temporary shelters with related shops to protect housing and living costs.
But for any of these to happen, governments and companies need to stop thinking short-term, and start considering the long-term effects of their actions. A full-time return to office spaces will result in an undoing of all the effort that went into repairing what this neoliberal, profit-centric, exclusionary, high-pressure system progressively broke in the past: from the strengthened family relationships (hello two-year lockdown!) to the healthier diets and more socio-environmentally conscious purchasing and living (home-cooking, supporting local shops, gardening, the upsurge in second-hand markets, a reduction in carbon footprint from reduced traveling). Talent from forgotten resources like mothers, the less-physically-abled and retirees can be reinstated in new forms, and the subsequent intellectual discrimination that has, until now, been a detriment to the economy can be renewed and utilised. The cost, therefore, of forcing a return to the white-light corridors, communal coffee machines, recycled air, and open plan desks will far outweigh the benefits of corporate camaraderie, social capital, and political protection. As important as it is to recognise the value of in-person work, it appears that, once again, companies like LinkedIn and Twitter appear ahead of the curve by suggesting long-term work-from-home options (Kay, 2021; Kelly, 2022). Perhaps the time has come for other institutions to follow their lead and see the value they derive in it. And perhaps in changing what an ‘office’ looks like, corporations can gain back some of the trust they have lost by putting profit over people for so long.
British Broadcasting Corporation (6 July 2022) ‘British Airways to Cancel 10,300 More Flights’, British Broadcasting Corporation, accessed 19 July 2022
Choudhry P (2020) ‘Our Work-From-Anywhere Future’, Harvard Business Review, accessed 19 July 2022
Duncan E (18 February 2022) ‘COVID has Changed the Way We Work and There’s No Going Back’, The Times UK, accessed 19 July 2022
Forrest A (3 August 2021) ‘Government Urges Businesses to ‘Ramp Up’ Return to Office this Summer’, The Independent UK, accessed 19 July 2022
Franklin J (1 June 2022) ‘Elon Musk Tells Employees to Return to the Office 40 Hours a Week – or Quit’, NPR, accessed 19 July 2022
Gordon N and McGregor G (29 June 2022) ‘As the Return-to-Office Debate Rages in the U.S. and Europe, the Matter is Already Settled in Asia’, Fortune, accessed 19 July 2022
Hsu A (5 June 2022) ‘The Idea of Working in the Office, All Day Every Day? No Thanks, Say Workers’, NPR, accessed 19 July 2022
Kay D (29 July 2021) ‘LinkedIn Allows Employees to Work Fully Remote, Removes In-office Expectation’, Reuters, accessed 19 July 2022
Kelly J (5 March 2022) ‘Twitter Employees Can Work from Home ‘Forever’ or ‘Wherever You Feel Most Productive and Creative’, Forbes Magazine, accessed 19 July 2022
Lim J (25 April 2022) ‘Some Firms Want Staff Back at Workplace, but Experts Warn Against Rushing Into It’, The Straits Times, accessed 19 July 2022
Sherman A (8 March 2022) ‘Making Sense of Why Executives are Eager to get Employees Back in the Office’, CNBC, accessed 19 July 2022
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the authors:
Niyati Pingali is currently completing her MA in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), focusing on governance and development policy. As a former corporate employee, she knows the cost and the benefits of capitalism and plans to dedicate her life to changing the narrative to ensure both people and the economy benefit equally: a feat that sounds impossible, but she knows can happen.
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