Office politics: can the “work from home” genie be squeezed back into its bottle?

via Flickr ©  John "Pathfinder" Lester (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © John "Pathfinder" Lester (CC BY 2.0)

  • BT, for instance, seems keen to get back to a mild command and control environment, albeit one that leaves the hard decisions on hybrid working to team leaders
  • Google is similarly reluctant to issue diktats,  leaving it up to ‘countries and locations’ to  make mandatory return to work decisions…  when the time is right

It’s not that companies want a full return to 2019 - most just want to arrive at some sort of hybrid office/home arrangement that can work for most employees, most of the time. That might prove easier to write than to do. 

BT, the UK’s venerable incumbent telco, has published an apologia defining its post-Covid “return to the office” policy. In essence, Alison Wilcox, the Group’s HR Director, writes that once the pandemic becomes a manageably endemic problem, BT will adopt a “hybrid-approach” wherein “teams will choose how and where colleagues will work depending on the team’s and their customer’s requirements.” 

It sounds very democratic and inclusive but the reality will be that many former office-wallah’s hoping to be able to permanently to work from home in a post-pandemic world will be directed by senior management to return to the office environments they left in March 2020 when the first of the Covid-19 lockdowns began.

That central tenet is larded with textbook HR phraseology such as, “For everybody at BT, we still see our shared workplaces as very much central to the company’s future”, and, “They will be places where colleagues come together to connect, collaborate, learn and develop, build friendships and share their experiences”.

There is also mention of “empowerment” but for a lot of staff it will be back to the status quo ante of the commute, the office, the endless meetings and the rest of the old routine. It remains to be seen how many will put up with a return to centralised working they hoped had gone forever and how many will vote with their feet at a time of millions of job vacancies. Ms Wilcox is careful to explain and reassure; “We’re not prescribing a set number of days or a minimum requirement for people to be in an office or work from home. We’re empowering our teams to ensure that customers are at the centre of their decisions… internally we’re calling it ‘Smart Working’, she writes.

The policy relies on a “UK-wide programme” that will “see us consolidate and improve our workplaces from around 300 locations to around 30. Together, our new Smart Working approach combined with the move into our new state-of-the-art workplaces will prove an exciting combination for all our office-based colleagues and new recruits.” Over the past 18 months many people have found that they don’t like working from home and will be glad to get back to the way things were. However, others have fully embraced a new workstyle-lifestyle centred on the home and home office and, loathe to give it up, will be remembering the punchline of a very old joke: “Right, tea-break over, now, back on your heads.”

Meanwhile in the US, Google seems keen to extend its (voluntary) “work from home” policy, and not insist that employees come back to the office until early next year. After all,  nobody wants a revolt… not when there are millions of positions in technology going begging. As things stood before an emailed announcement by Google's CEO, there would have been a push for Google employees to return to the office some time in September. Sundar Pichai told employees in an email that even though “we are welcoming back tens of thousands of Googlers on a voluntary basis,” the company will extend its voluntary return to work policy until at least January 10th, 2022. After that date, the current plan is to have countries and locations make mandatory return to work decisions depending on local conditions.

But it’s believed that Google, along with other big US companies, is starting to have jitters over the Covid Delta wave and the risk that mounting infections and deaths might stall any mass return to work. So it’s keeping its options open. Pichai has said that mandatory office attendance will be issued with 30 days notice.

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