Lego, the Danish manufacturer of children’s plastic brick sets, has seen its products grow in use from homes into offices. Human Resource (HR) departments and management consultants use it as a tool for groups of individuals to work on assignments that are aimed to express creative abilities, build problem-solving skills, improve communication, and so on.
Lego even helped formalise such activities into a training tool called Lego Serious Play. Exercises using tools such as Lego bricks are also aimed to deal with work-related stress and anxiety. Many such tools and training programmes are designed for a work environment that may not be relevant anymore.
Because many such training tools assume employees are working together under one roof, interacting with each other in person, and so on. That kind of a work space is in flux. Software companies first shook up the work environment some years ago when designed offices that were a fun and attractive place to be in, with free high quality food flowing through the day, flexible hours, and indoor entertainment spaces equipped with table tennis tables and the like. They wanted their employees to be present long hours and working!
Many of them are redrawing that same work space. Covid shook many assumptions of work and showed alternatives that were possible, and productive. As the disruptions due to Covid recedes and firms prepare to return to ‘normalcy,’ they are having to re-think the work environment itself. And many are not very sure what they want.
At the organisational level, the decision needs to be made whether to continue to allow remote work or make employees return to the office building. Three factors interact here — the nature of the work, the firm’s unique management culture, and the desire of the employees. Each firm needs to weigh these three to find a unique solution. Even within the same industry, whether it be banking, or social media, you see different firms choosing to enunciate different policies.
There are some kinds of work that more easily support remote working. These are usually facilitated by IT and may require a lot of working with the computer or other forms of equipment remotely. Employees can still work in teams, interact with each other or with clients/vendors, and undertake tasks that are easily measured and clear goals set. Some employees love the flexibility, the working from home saves commute time and allows taking care of home chores too. The company saves on commercial space when a large number works from home, and some are even figuring out that they would set compensation depending on where the employee lives rather than where the company is located.
Some companies are requiring their employees to return to the office because they believe that for their kind of work and work culture, that is what works best. Creative juices flow when you run into each other and can lean over the cubicle for a chat, they say. The work also may not be easily measurable. But employees who have tasted the freedom of working remote are resisting. Those with valuable skills are quitting the jobs on this issue because they are confident of finding another employment which would support their remote work preferences.
And then there are the employees who want to return to the office! They love the interaction with the other workers, like to get away from their home (and its accompanying responsibilities) for some time during the day, and miss the office cafeteria.
HR managers certainly have a tough time trying to re-create the new work environment. What should they do? Take a poll? Some have compromised requiring physical presence three days a week. Others are letting the department heads decide what works best for their work unit. And now, there is one more variable to consider when you apply for a job.
The writer is an emeritus professor at Suffolk University, Boston