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The Office vs Remote Work Dichotomy: Why It Shouldn’t Be an Either-Or Proposition
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March 19, 2024 News

Written by: Martin Dale Bolima, Tech Journalist, AOPG.

 

The office is fighting back hard and reclaiming its throne as the working paradigm of the world.

And, perhaps ironically, those who championed the alternative—remote work and Work From Home (WFH)—are the ones leading the chargeback to the office.

Zoom. Microsoft. Lenovo. Dell.

These tech titans and more all stood at the altar of remote work, calling it the future and encouraging other companies to make the shift. Zoom even supercharged video conferencing, showing the world of business that meetings can be held effectively even when done virtually. Microsoft enhanced Office 365 for greater productivity. Lenovo and Dell rolled out WFH-ready hardware, like laptops and PCs, to give employees the tools they need to work wherever, whenever.

Then, just like that, most of them are leaving the altar—one calculated step at a time.

Dell, of course, has been one of the latest major brands to recall the workforce back to the office in a move described by some quarters as a “thinning of the herd.” Insiders say that unlike the company’s return to office call in 2023, this one is a harder stance, with those opting to remain fully remote expected to face “career limiting” prospects moving forward.

The tide, of course, has been turning back in favour of office-based work as early as 2022, just as the world was putting the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror and most travel restrictions and quarantine mandates had already been lifted. Tech giants and financial industry players were among the first to call their employees back to office duty, with Apple, Twitter, Citigroup, American Express, and BNY Mellon all starting the trend.

“After a very long wait, it will be good for many of us to see each other again in person and enjoy the connections, collaboration, and variety in our daily routines,” Stephen Squeri, CEO at American Express, told employees in February 2022, or a month before the company made its return to office official.

“It’s been almost two years since we closed our offices and travel, and I’m excited to announce that we’re ready to fully open up business travel and all our offices around the world!” Parag Agrawal, then CEO at Twitter (now X), told employees in March 2022, the same month the micro-blogging site reopened its offices after the pandemic.

The Great Resistance vs The Great Comeback

That excitement did not necessarily go both ways back then, with a considerable part of the workforce putting up what Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research senior fellow Nicholas Bloom termed “The Great Resistance.” Put simply, more employees did not want to go back to the office; others wanted a choice and some flexibility—the ability to go hybrid or something to that effect.

It was true then. It is still true now.

Not that employers are budging.

With the pandemic waning in 2022, ResumeBuilder.com conducted an end-of-year survey of 1,000 business leaders, and 9 in 10 admitted they will require employees to return to the office in 2023. ResumeBuilder.com did the same at the end of 2023, and 9 in 10 employers again said they would call their staff back to the office by 2024.

And so, one after the other, companies began to call their employees back to the office—whether full-time or in hybrid setups.

Google. Apple. Meta.

Pretty much every big company that went remote during the pandemic has reverted to the traditional ways of work, or at least a semblance of it. Employees’ feelings be damned.

Zooming Forward, Trudging Backwards

Zoom’s own return to office mandate in 2023, a far cry from its dalliance with remote work a couple of years ago, proved emblematic of this far-reaching reversal. In fact, even the company’s own CEO, Eric Yuan, seems to have taken pointed shots at remote work, lamenting how it fails to build trust, which he describes as vital “for everything.”

“In our early days, we all knew each other,” Yuan said in an August 2023 interview with Insider. “Over the past several years, we’ve hired so many new ‘Zoomies’ that it’s really hard to build trust. Quite often, you come up with great ideas, but when we are all on Zoom, it’s really hard. We cannot have a great conversation. We cannot debate each other well because everyone tends to be very friendly when you join a Zoom call.”

Andy Jassy, CEO at Amazon, espoused nearly the same thought in an update he shared with Amazon’s workforce in calling them back to the office in early 2023.

“It’s easier to learn, model, practice, and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues. It’s especially true for new people (and we’ve hired a lot of people during the pandemic), but it’s also true for people of all tenures at Amazon,” he wrote. “When you’re in-person, people tend to be more engaged, observant, and attuned to what’s happening in the meetings and the cultural clues being communicated…”

There Is Always an Alternative Perspective

While Yuan’s and Sassy’s views may hold merit, it’s important to acknowledge there’s a counterpoint gaining traction in modern times.

Edward Wong, VP, Identity Access Management, at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, opened up about this in a LinkedIn post back in February 2021, when the return to office seeds were only being planted, in part because the pandemic was still ongoing.

“There are managers and leaders who only know how to lead by proximity. They have to see faces in the office and butts on seats. Like the way factories used to be managed decades ago,” wrote Wong. “These managers have simply not learned or caught up on skills and methods on how to effectively lead and manage a remote workforce… Managers are simply taking the easy way out by keeping staff in the office and being able to just go up to them to issue orders.”

Wong was also critical of business leaders’ seeming reluctance to change the way they assess how things are done at work, with many still equating effectiveness with being in the office.

“Many managers have simply not switched to an outcomes-based or results-oriented style of management. They think that being in office and having teams of people under them and sitting close to them in a subservient manner shows their power and authority and, by extension, their effectiveness. But they are sorely mistaken. Real effective leaders are the people who get stuff done, regardless of who, where or how their teams do it.”

Lots of leaders, apparently, are being myopic in their view—or, at the very least, too old-fashioned by Wong’s assessment.

The Crucial Role of Technology in Remote Work

Wong’s perspective makes sense just the same. And three years after he made his original point, his view remains a fair argument for any remote work vs office work debate—if not more so.

Office vs remote workRobert Pizzari, Vice President, Strategic Advisory, APAC, at Splunk, certainly thinks so while acknowledging the unfillable gap that is the human-to-human connection the office enables.

“While the lack of human touch is considered a gap technology cannot fill, there are ways to keep humans in the loop. One such method is by empowering employees with the right AI (Artificial Intelligence) tools and technology that continue to keep users in the driver’s seat while helping to streamline workflow and eliminate friction,” he explained in an exclusive email interview with Disruptive Tech News (DTN). “Automation, for example, can be a powerful tool in liberating employees from manual, mundane, and time-consuming activities, allowing them to focus on more meaningful aspects of their roles. This approach not only enhances efficiency but keeps employee engagement at the forefront—even in remote work scenarios.”

The technology, incidentally, appears to be in place already for remote work to work—something Pizzari noted to DTN.

“The technology to support full remote work is already here, but it requires organisations to commit, invest, and adapt. In order to support a fully remote workforce, observability is a critical force in constructing resilience within digital systems, ensuring seamless monitoring of remote operations and allowing organisations the flexibility and scalability necessary to meet the evolving demands of remote work,” Pizzari explained.

Indeed, the technology is right there, from video conferencing platforms to collaboration tools to project management software. And, in another irony, Zoom, Dell, and the other tech companies seemingly turning their backs on remote work helped make this technology good enough to make WFH work. It certainly worked during the pandemic. There is no reason it should not work now and moving forward—not with innovation after innovation is rolled out (with obvious exceptions in certain industries, of course, like construction, hospitality, and healthcare).

Moreover, the future of virtual interaction promises to blur the lines between physical and digital workplaces even further. Technologies like spatial audio and holographic avatars are on the horizon. Spatial audio creates a realistic soundscape, making it seem like your colleagues’ voices are coming from their positions on the virtual screen. Holographic avatars go a step further, replacing video feeds with 3D representations of your colleagues, complete with gestures and body language. Imagine brainstorming sessions where everyone feels like they’re truly present in the same room, even if they’re miles apart. These advancements, alongside the existing collaboration tools, will continue to make remote work a viable and potentially even more engaging option for many industries.

Respecting Tradition While Embracing Change

It’s often said that old habits are difficult to break, and the same could be said for entrenched traditions. It’s understandable that there’s a reluctance among some to let go of the familiar ways of doing things, especially those that have served well in the past. However, it’s also important to recognise the potential for growth and innovation that comes with embracing new approaches, particularly in light of the transformations brought about by recent events.

Tradition has undoubtedly played a significant role in the success of many companies over the years. Yet, it’s equally important to acknowledge the opportunities presented by technological advancements and evolving work practices. Remote work, for instance, has demonstrated its potential to be both efficient and effective when given the chance to flourish.

Rather than viewing these changes as a threat to tradition, perhaps it’s more constructive to see them as complementary elements that can coexist harmoniously. By finding a balance between the old and the new, businesses can harness the best of both worlds to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing landscape.

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