The debate over employee work preferences continues to explode. Many employers actively ignore employee preferences, particularly when employees favor fully remote work. In recent weeks, even more companies demanded that employees return to offices, immediately, or else. Employee preferences aside, why do companies want everyone back in the office?
1. Companies are losing grasp on their cultures
Recently, EY Global Chairman and CEO Carmine Di Sibio said, “We’re encouraging our people to get back to the offices. We think that’s important to our culture.” From everyone I’ve talked to at EY over the past several weeks, the culture is drying up, and firm leadership is desperately scrambling to hold it together.
Admittedly, the bonding experience created when six people huddle around a card table in a closet, staring at their laptops as the midnight cleanup crew vacuums the long office hallways just outside the door, is hard to replicate. It certainly isn’t the same as each individual sitting in front of their laptop on their makeshift desk in the corner of their bedroom at 1 a.m. occasionally pinging other team members with questions, updates, or assignments.
Culture is about creating a sense of truly being part of a team and being in it together at all costs and the level of die-hard commitment that comes with all that. Team breakfast, lunch, and dinner were replaced with morning sex, walking the dog, and family dinner or evenings out with friends. Many companies view these “replacement activities” as highly destructive to corporate culture.
2. WFH allows employees to ask “why” more often
Working from home changed the pace enough to give people time to pause and reflect on their current choices and their future. Why were they staying online at 8:30 p.m. “just in case the manager needs something” while their spouse put their children to bed without them down the hall? Why did they feel an expectation to work during the time they used to spend listening to audiobooks while commuting to and from the office? Why were they giving so much to a job that wasn’t fulfilling or as meaningful as they hoped?
Many business leaders voiced their assumptions that employees are distracted and inefficient while working from home, despite numerous research studies that have indicated otherwise. The reality is those business leaders want people to come back to the biggest distraction of all (i.e., the distraction from life)—the office (not the work itself). WFH allowed employees to think about their true aspirations more than most executives are comfortable with.
3. Lack of desperately needed on-the-job training for new hires
Over the past two weeks, I literally got 15-plus direct messages on Twitter (I average about two DMs a week, so this was huge) about the lack of on-the-job training of recently hired staff at accounting firms, along with countless mentions in responses to my WFH tweets. Experience dollars used to be one of public accounting’s biggest draws.
The ability to interrupt your senior or manager who is sitting in the same room or the opportunity to poke your head into the partner’s office to have an impromptu chat about the status of a project seemingly disappeared with WFH, and firms have struggled to replicate this virtually. As a result, new staff aren’t picking up on many key parts of the job (like how to ask follow-up questions or people skills in general), and clients and managers notice the difference. The pain is real. The apprenticeship model is only as strong as its weakest link, and firms are on the verge of a generational knowledge gap that could cause irreversible damage in years to come.
4. Working from the office is how executives got where they are
When you think “corporate executive,” who comes to mind? My guess is that more often than not, the answer is a total douchebag, which is the primary makeup of executive ranks in today’s corporate world. These opportunistic people got to where they are by being seen at the right times and with the right people. These driven people went back to work after going out for drinks after work. These conniving people figured out how to delay delivery on their email so they would appear to be working nonstop seven days a week. These overly assertive people knew just when to bulldoze others in important meetings. These charismatic people knew when to take credit for good things (whether or not it was their own work) and when to let others take blame on their behalf. These pretentious people played politics perfectly. (Side note: Thankfully, NONE of the executives where I currently work are like this. BIG SURPRISE! We are a work-from-anywhere company.)
The thing is, being the business douchebag is a lot harder to do remotely. The skills possessed by said business douchebags (schmoozing, being seen, taking credit and diverting blame, overconfidence, being disingenuous suck-ups, etc.) don’t come into play as often during a Zoom meeting as they do in-person.
5. Employers want to track you and that’s easier to do at the office
Employers tracking employees sends one message: we don’t trust you. Does your little Slack or Skype bubble show “away” because you went to the bathroom or because you went shopping in the middle of the day? Maybe your home internet is cutting in and out or you just decided to take an afternoon nap? Seeing your butt in your chair must be a better way to prove that you are working, right? (As opposed to measuring the amount of work you actually get done.) They certainly think so.
In the office, they can monitor you. They can observe how much you are on your phone. They can measure when you show up and when you leave. Plus, in the office, you aren’t going to sit with your work and personal laptops side by side watching Netflix on one while working on the other like they assume you do all the time at home.
The bottom line: During the pandemic, employers lost control over employees, and now they’d like you to give it back to them.
About the author:
C.P. Aiden is a former Big 4 assurance senior manager who bounced between public accounting and industry three times during the past 15-plus years. After leaving public accounting for good, he wrote and self-published an office comedy series, “Waive Further Review,” about a first-year audit engagement and subsequent financial statement restatement that pokes fun at the work, life, and culture inside today’s largest public accounting firms.