While some people can perform their work assignments effectively working from home, this doesn’t mean that letting employees off the leash completely is without problems for employers. So say the authors of this article. Photo: Shutterstok/mckaya

Working from home has become a universal right. This raises five important questions

How can we ensure that everyone feels that they can cope and develop? This is just one of many challenges that employers have to address now that working from home is here to stay.

Apple boss Tim Cook announced recently that the mobile phone manufacturer’s employees should have to work three mandatory days a week in their offices, and that they could choose to work from home during the remaining two days. However, a protest group emerged from among Apple’s employees arguing that the directive to work in the office was in contravention of founder Steve Jobs’ management philosophy. The group sees no point in employing the smartest people in the world if only to micromanage where and when they do their jobs.

Apple’s decision was arrived at after a tug-of-war that had been going on for a little more than two years on the issue of working from home. While Cook regards presence in the office as essential to collaboration and creativity, Apple’s employees believe that the freedom to work outside the confines of their offices has to remain in order to guarantee their well-being and loyalty.

Apple is not the only organisation to experience such tensions. A recent global study conducted by Stanford University has shown that employees are in the process of winning the argument. Whereas in 2020 the average employee was willing to work from home for 1.6 days a week, this figure has now increased to 2.1 days.

What managers should be asking themselves

It is important for employers to accept this and to find out how these new terms of reference are changing our ability to meet the important challenges we face in the workplace. They must ask themselves questions such as the following:

  • How do we develop the products and services that our customers need? 
  • How do we create exciting and inclusive workplaces? 
  • How do we ensure that everyone feels that they can cope and develop? 
  • How do we organise to encourage flexibility while at the same time ensuring that no-one is left marginalised or isolated? 
  • How do we ensure that everyone employed during the Covid-pandemic is included in our social workplace community?

From a privilege to a universal right

The perception that working from home is a universal right has spread surprisingly rapidly among employees.

Before the pandemic, working from home was seen as a privilege granted to the select few, such as professors and software programmers. When Elon Musk recently demanded a mandatory 40-hour week in Tesla’s offices, company employees and their unions characterised this as ignoring the needs of the workforce.

How, in the space of two years, could working from home develop from a rare privilege into a universal right?

A self-validation trap

Research shows that once we have created a perception about an issue, we interpret any new information in such a way that it confirms what we already think. We build ourselves a ‘self-validation trap’ – right up until the time when overwhelming evidence persuades us that our perception was wrong.

Perhaps in reality the 9 to 5 working day at the office was obsolete long before the pandemic arrived? Were we in fact all caught for many decades in a self-validation trap?

The watershed events that failed to change our deep-rooted perception

The modern office arrived with first world industrialisation in the nineteenth century. An increasing need for paperwork promoted the rapid growth of offices and office jobs. There were none of the modern communication tools that we have today. Workers had to be physically in the office together in order to share information and resolve their issues quickly.

This was also long before the arrival of two-career families and picking up kids from the kindergarten. The term ‘time-squeeze’ was first used only in the 1990s.

In spite of all these changes, we continued to adhere to the concept of a 40-hour working week spent in the office as the natural approach to getting work done.

The pandemic changed everything

We needed a pandemic and a two-year forced regime of working from home to shock us out of our self-validation trap regarding the necessity of office work. After millions of employees were sent home in 2020, researchers were surprised to find that people succeeded in performing their work just as well as in the office, and in some cases even better.

This finding is supported by research carried out in-house at Telenor (a Norwegian telecom operator) and other Norwegian companies. We observed no significant changes in productivity when our employees started to work more from home. Employee well-being is now higher or at the same level as it was before the pandemic, and in some companies it is actually increasing. At Telenor, employees maintain that flexible working arrangements represent one of the best aspects of their job.

Working from home means less ‘cross-over’ between teams

However, just because some people can perform their tasks effectively working from home, this doesn’t mean that letting employees off the leash completely is without problems for employers.

In-house research carried out at Telenor is showing that employees tended to work more intensely within their teams during the pandemic, and that there was less cross-over interaction between teams.

It is also more difficult for new employees to build networks working from home than it is in the office canteen. For many employees, the office is an important social arena. Those who choose to spend very little time in the office risk missing out on important information and career benefits.

However, despite these challenges, we lack good arguments to support demands that everyone should return to the office as before.

Quick to react

Our impression is that employees are now quick to react when managers attempt to get them to return to traditional work practices. Employee perception is that the advantages of dividing their time between home and the office far outweigh any benefits linked to the old ways of working.

The trick for employers is to strike a balance and identify the right kinds of hybrid work models. In practice, this will mean finding the right answers to the five key questions that we posed earlier in this article.

This article was first published in the newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on 10 October 2022 and is reproduced here with the permission of the paper.