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Heading back to the office

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes

People lucky enough to have the option are looking forward to working from home more after the pandemic, polls suggest, provided they are not schooling from home at the same time. And polls also suggest employers are looking forward to offering that flexibility. Momentum is building for a "hybrid" workplace, according to experts, which would most likely allow for two to three days per week at home.

Still, as vaccine roll-outs gather pace and economies reopen, there doesn't seem to be much daylight between the concept of "office-first hybrid" and simply getting staff back to their desks.

Google parent Alphabet told staff last week to prepare for a return to their desks by September 1 and that anyone wanting to work remotely would have to get prior approval. Amazon.com also called for an "office-centric" return to work. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs Group bankers are dutifully trooping back to headquarters after scathing comments from chief executive David Solomon, who called working from home an "aberration" that was bad for innovation and collaboration and said it was not "the new normal".

Of course some big companies have said they will embrace at least some remote work. And there are creative ideas on how to do so, including plans by European start-up Revolut to allow people to work overseas up to two months a year. But for many the future is starting to look a lot like the pre-pandemic days.

Although office-space demand has been crushed by the worst global recession since the Second World War, with excess capacity put back on the market and vacancy levels rising, demand is expected to start picking up this year. Net absorption of office space, the difference between the total occupied by tenants and the total vacated, is expected to cross back into positive territory next year in the US and Europe, says Kevin Thorpe, chief economist at real estate company Cushman & Wakefield. In Asia, where the virus was better kept under control, the metric never went negative.

Whether because of attachment to company culture, old-style management techniques or the brand power of the office itself, firms took a wait-and-see approach rather than give up their lease or flee major cities for good. Corporate bean counters do see real estate as a future cost saving, and executives talk up the need for employee flexibility, but change will be gradual.

"Watch what companies do, not what they say," says Thorpe. He expects working from home to rise to 10 per cent of the US labour force from 5 per cent over the next decade.

Obviously, executives should tread carefully when prodding people back to work — the pandemic isn't over and variants may delay the economic reopening process. Overconfident messaging might confuse or demoralise employees if they are forced to reverse course.

And yet, judging employees by what they are doing, rather than what they say, shows the joy of working from home has faded. The pandemic has cut out the daily commute, but we're working an hour longer every day as a result. We are anxious to be seen to be available, eroding the barriers between work and home. Our work-life balance hasn't improved.

With plenty of stress, fatigue and distractions at home, it's not surprising that a recent survey found people choosing to work in the office to be more productive. Praising "water-cooler moments" is groan-inducing, but there are benefits to collaborating with colleagues or meeting clients in person. The dark side of office life, such as bullying and harassment, has in some cases been harder to tackle from behind a keyboard.

Even some residential data suggests people are starting to cool on the pandemic dream of escaping to the countryside. Knight Frank research for Britain shows urban areas close to London are back in demand, with the popularity of rural idylls dying down.

All of which takes us back to the so-called hybrid model. Will it come to pass if going back to the way things were is proving hard to resist? The omens aren't great.

Executives are already grumbling that picking just two days a week for remote work, seen as the bare minimum, is complicated. If Monday and Friday are likely to be overwhelmingly popular, what then? What happens to productivity if the office is packed three days a week and empty the rest of the time? If employees are told to pick different days, when will they collaborate with colleagues face-to-face? This will take time, effort and investment to manage.

No wonder some have warned that hybrid work looks like the "worst of both worlds". The complexity of managing hybrid roles will be too much for some firms, and the inevitable productivity losses will be pinned on remote work — resulting in a generalised shift back to the office. When Marissa Mayer banned working from home at Yahoo in 2013, she said it had sacrificed "speed and quality".

Is this too pessimistic? Maybe. But the quicker offices reopen, the steeper the climb gets for the more ambitious work-from-home advocates. People have short memories: Covid-19 has been a bonfire of many vanities, and the WFH revolution might yet be one of them.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes

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Published April 14, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 13, 2021 at 4:00 pm)

Heading back to the office

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