Can the flexible workplace remain flexible?


Looks like Citigroup wants their employees back in the office. Granted, not all, and not all the time. But still, the news is a bit of a tune change from June of 2021, when the company was trumpeting the fact that the flexible workplace was giving it an edge over its competitors.1

The bank, which has stood out as one of the Wall Street firms most friendly to remote work, announced just a week or so ago that employees will face consequences if they do not meet the firm's three-day, in-office requirement. Compliance with the required three-days-in-the-office edict, staffers have been told, will be considered when rating performance and crafting pay packages. While the company is “committed to their hybrid work model and proud of the flexibility it provides, as necessary we will hold colleagues accountable for adhering to their in-office days.”2

The reason is that Jane Fraser, CEO, feels that the company’s flexible work policy has shown that, well, not all employees can make a go of working at home. As a result, the bank’s less productive colleagues are being called back into the office… for “coaching.” I think that in this instance, coaching probably means “oversight.” And, based on my own personal experience, I understand her concern. 

Without getting too deep into details, in more than one instance, I’ve encountered a remote employee upon whom I simply could not depend. In those instances, these were individuals who were hard at work… not doing the job for which I’d hired them, but hard at work gaming the system. How? By attempting to work two jobs at the same time. I know this because I can actually “see” what they’re doing – and not doing — even though we’re not in the same office. What makes it possible? Technologies.

Let's face it, with the technologies available today, monitoring an employee’s behavior certainly doesn’t require being together in an office all day. Take Salesforce, for example. With it, one can view an employee’s activities over the course of the day; phone calls made, emails sent. And not just the dates and times of those correspondences, but content, as well. 

This is an age where employers can, and do, monitor screen times, count keystrokes, and can even know when an employee’s office chair is occupied and when it isn’t. (P.S.: There are probably other, more surreptitious ways of monitoring employee behavior of which I’m not aware). Unfortunately, employers have little choice because employees have set the ground rules. It’s unfortunate, too, that I’m reminded of that old adage that “it only takes a few to spoil it for everyone.”

Sure, bringing employees back into the office for “coaching” is a great way to make sure that they’re doing what they’re paid to do. But companies have other reasons to look at a return to in-office work. And not just for underperformers, but for everyone. After all, as amazing as some tech solutions are, employers understand that they can’t replace the experience (and the results) that can come from individuals working closely with each other. Here are just a few of the challenges faced by remote workers:

Collaboration is tough: the lack of face-to-face interaction can hinder collaboration and teamwork. Some projects and tasks require real-time brainstorming, problem-solving, and spontaneous exchanges that are simply impossible in a “borderless workplace” environment.

Blurred work-life boundaries: Flexible work (and hours) can contribute to a better balance between personal and work lives, but with no clear separation between office and home, employees can find it difficult to disconnect from work, leading to longer working hours and increased stress levels. Without social connections and impromptu interaction, productivity may increase, but so can employee burn-out and, potentially, increased attrition.

Limited access to resources: No matter how robust a company’s communication and information sharing technologies, remote workers still face limitations in accessing certain resources that would be much more readily available in a traditional office setting.

Reduced “chance encounters of the productive kind”: The absence of casual encounters and serendipitous conversations that often occur in physical workspaces limit opportunities for both innovation and, I think, personal growth. I know well from my agency days, when working remotely wasn’t an option, spontaneous interactions can spark new ideas and foster creativity. 

Learning and mentoring loss: Maybe I’m being Old School here, but much of what I learned was through the kind of personal interaction that simply isn’t possible in a remote workplace environment. Sure, you can have Zoom calls with mentors, take online skill-enhancement courses, and the like, but when it comes to learning, there is nothing like standing just a few feet away from someone who can truly teach you something. And that experience cannot be replicated in a Google meeting. Young people suffer most, of course; since they’re just starting out, they can really benefit from the in-office learning experience.

In summary…

Remote workers certainly have their share of challenges. Working remotely simply can’t present the kind of collaboration and development opportunities that employees need, nor the resources needed for optimizing efficiency. This can lead to job dissatisfaction and burn out. Meanwhile, employers have their challenges, chief among them being a potential talent loss. A move toward more days in the office means a shrinking talent pool. It also means risking the exodus of those top performers who are perfectly content with, and capable of, working remotely, and have no desire to return to the office.

What is the future of work? It’s a fascinating topic, and as always, I welcome your thoughts.

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1Bloomberg. Citigroup says flexible work gives it edge over competitors. June 2021.

2CNN Business. Wall Street’s biggest WFH advocate is bringing underperforming staff back into the office. January 2023