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Anthony Thompson

Arden University

Postgraduate Programme Leader for Psychology

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How remote working is shaping the office of the future

Before demanding a 'great return' to the office, employers must reimagine collective workspaces.
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Covid-19 shook the world. Overnight, many organisations and individuals had to pivot rapidly to remote working practices and find alternative ways to complete tasks, build professional relationships and navigate projects.

Over time, the situation gradually stabilised as both employers and employees became accustomed to remote working practices.

For this reason, the pandemic became known as ‘the great accelerator’, forcing organisations to adapt to non-traditional working practices at a much faster rate than had it not occurred.

As restrictions eased, employers faced important questions about what to do next – should we continue to allow our employees to work from home? Should we ask our employees to return to work on-site? Should we allow flexible working? Big questions with unclear answers.

We’re still working through the ramifications of that right now – and the decisions we’re currently making could have a greater impact in the future.

The great return

Understandably, every organisation, and equally every role within an organisation, has its unique demands and opportunities when it comes to working practices.

People are often reluctant to give something up once it’s been acquired, unless an alternative equivalent to the inflated value is provided in return.

Some roles have been designed to be purely remote, while others could not feasibly be completed without being on-site. What about those roles where employees could potentially work from either the office or from home? Which option is best to choose then?

If we look at recent trends in job vacancies, we can see that from an employer’s perspective, there has been a shift towards bringing people back into the office.

A critical disconnect

The Wall Street Journal reported that there had been a 20.6% decrease in the number of job vacancies listed as remote work on LinkedIn, with similar trends also being seen across other job platforms.

Despite this, demand from employees for remote working roles remains high, with over a third of employees wanting to work fully remotely. The disconnect between organisations wanting employees to return to the office and employees valuing remote work can understandably be a source of potential friction, especially if it is not handled carefully.

The endowment effect

One important psychological pitfall that organisations need to be aware of is the endowment effect. At a broad level, the endowment effect is the finding that humans tend to place a higher value on things that they have when compared to things that they don’t.

Rather than asking whether employees should be brought back to the office a better question may be to ask: what is the office for?

As such, people are often reluctant to give something up once it’s been acquired, unless an alternative equivalent to the inflated value is provided in return. In the context of returning to the office the endowment effect comes into play when organisations ask employees, who have previously been able to work remotely, to return to on-site work for some or all of the working week.

Here, the employee may perceive this as being asked to give up something that they have already acquired (remote working) and will value the ability to remote work highly.

The impact of this effect is clear, with 60% of employees who work exclusively remotely stating that they were extremely likely to change companies if the ability to work remotely was taken away for some or all of the working week.

Re-imagining the office

So rather than asking whether employees should be brought back to the office a better question may be to ask: what is the office for? The office will remain an important aspect of working life, but its function is likely to be significantly different from its pre-pandemic incarnation.

As the ‘great acceleration’ has shown, the day-to-day functions of many roles can be completed remotely and arbitrarily deciding that employees should return to the office is likely to fall foul of the endowment effect.

Instead, the aim for organisations is to bring the perceived value of working from the office in line with the perceived value of working remotely. So, what can on-site working do better than remote working?

Collaboration and innovation

In a large-scale study of over 61,000 Microsoft employees, it was found that remote working practices tended to produce collaboration silos, where employees formed smaller collaboration networks and shared information with a smaller number of colleagues.

As a result, this made it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the organisation. Unsurprisingly, this has important ramifications for innovation and collaborative problem-solving.

While organisational commitment is a positive attribute, working remotely has the potential to take this attribute to the extreme for some individuals, placing them at risk.

The role of the office may therefore evolve into a space where brainstorming and collaborative activities are conducted. Indeed, it has been suggested that re-designing the physical workspace with this focus in mind could help to boost creativity.

By providing a range of creative spaces, the office could not only increase creative collaboration but also enhance opportunities for chance and social encounters, which are often lacking when employees work remotely from one another.

One of the most consistently cited drawbacks of remote working by employees is feeling socially isolated, so through emphasising its social and collaborative nature, organisations may be able to increase the perceived value of working from the office.

Health implications

Remote working has been associated with poorer mental and physical health outcomes. When working from home employee’s physical activity levels tend to be significantly lower and food intake increases.

One reason for this is that when working from home there are fewer social cues to promote health behaviours and it can be very easy to fall into bad habits, such as not taking full lunch breaks or sitting down for long durations of time.

Decreased physical activity is particularly problematic as it has been linked to several significant health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and depression.

Furthermore, the accumulated health risks cannot be compensated for. For example, an employee going to the gym in the evening does not protect them from the health risks they have accumulated by being sat down for the majority of the working day.

Positive interventions

A second way in which the perceived value of working from the office could be enhanced is as a place where employee health and wellbeing can be boosted. As organisations have much more control over the physical workspace it is easier to put health promotion interventions, such as social walking groups or sit-stand desks, in place.

Ultimately, an element of choice should be provided for workers when deciding whether to return to the office.

By tapping into the social element of physical activity, organisations are again able to tackle the social isolation felt by remote workers and make travelling to the office an attractive alternative to working from home.

This approach also has the dual benefit of helping to reduce both the number and duration of sickness absences within the organisation making it a win-win situation for all parties.

Individual suitability

Alongside the general benefits of on-site working, we must also consider each employee’s suitability for remote work. As with all jobs, certain personality traits and competencies have been linked to better outcomes when working remotely whilst others have been linked to poorer outcomes.

During the development of a new test to measure digital competencies in remote workers, a few distinct types of remote workers were identified including well-adjusted and unhealthily dedicated remote workers.

Unsurprisingly, those who fell into the well-adjusted cluster were employees who coped well with the technological aspects of working from home and were able to set healthy boundaries to separate work from non-work.

Those in the unhealthily dedicated cluster found it more challenging to switch off from work and difficult to draw clear boundaries between work and personal life, leading to behaviours such as checking and responding to emails outside of working hours.

While organisational commitment is a positive attribute, working remotely has the potential to take this attribute to the extreme for some individuals, placing them at risk for potentially developing conditions such as burnout.

The role of managers

Managers therefore play a key role in supporting individuals to manage transitions between on-site and remote working.

There must also be an acknowledgement that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone.

As we have seen, whilst the majority of employees appreciate the flexibility of remote working it may not be the best option for everyone. Managers are well positioned to have open and honest conversations with their employees to help identify who may thrive working remotely and who may find the blurred boundaries challenging.

Line managers are also more likely to be aware of the personal circumstances of their employees, such as caring commitments, that need to be taken into consideration when exploring optimal working styles. Ultimately, an element of choice should be provided for workers when deciding whether to return to the office.

Evaluation and communication

As organisations adapt to the post-Covid era, the role of the office is an important topic of debate. Arbitrarily deciding that all workers need to return to the office for some or all of the working week is likely to be met with resistance from many employees who value the flexibility of remote work.

Through the endowment effect, it is important that the perceived value of working from the office must match that of remote working, particularly when communicating the need to work from the office. There must also be an acknowledgement that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone.

Some employees may be particularly suited to remote work, while others may work better on-site.

The ultimate question that organisations will need to contemplate for the foreseeable future is: what is the office for? To help navigate this question, organisations can benefit from the experience of business psychologists who can help to explore the complexities of behaviour change from an evidence-based perspective.

If you enjoyed this, read: Is working from home greener than being in the office?

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Author Profile Picture
Anthony Thompson

Postgraduate Programme Leader for Psychology

Read more from Anthony Thompson
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