Return to the Office? Nah.

I was watching Charlene O’Hanlon’s interview with the CRO of Rollbar, discussing the slow growth of “return to office” policies. High-tech, because we are more mobile, had more options than many people—the janitor, for example, must be physically at their job to do it. High-tech employees did not have that issue—or if they did before the pandemic, they certainly didn’t after a few months of lockdowns. And now our infrastructure allows us to work from anywhere.

One of the things that some companies are considering is requiring that all employees come back to the office. I rarely say things super bluntly, but this time, I need to be blunt.

Fight that tendency if it shows up at your organization. At this point in history, that way lies corporate doom. Okay, maybe not doom, exactly, but certainly bad things. Some people back in the office is fine, a choice about coming back to the office whenever your state/provincial/local government decides to allow it? Fine. A required return for everyone? No.

Of course, one cannot make such a blunt statement without an explanation. Do I think that remote work is somehow better for the company? No. Some people are more productive working from home, while others are distracted by the many non-work things around them that they want/need to do. So it is a mixed bag that requires monitoring. In all my years working from home and mentoring others just starting to do so, I’d say this split is closer to 50/50 than you might think. To paraphrase a sergeant from my army days, “Those who most want to are sometimes those who absolutely should not.” He was talking about living off-post, which is outside jurisdiction in much the same way that working from home is. And I’ve found some truth in that statement when applied to WFH. In fact, one interesting thing for me to watch were the success rates for companies that went 100% WFH. It’s gone better than I expected, probably because it was a broader swath of staff than just those who wanted to.

So why would it be better if I, who have worked from home for more than 20 years at a number of different companies, think it’s a mixed bag?

Hiring and retention.

We know that we’re short-staffed. We know that it is hard right now to find any flavor of IT peep, but it’s brutally hard in InfoSec and pretty tough in DevOps. A decent percentage of employees is going to want to keep working from home, and in the current environment, they can change jobs faster than you can say “retention bonus” if you give them a reason. I don’t have hard numbers, but let’s assume a hugely conservative 10% of IT staff preferred working from home. Can you afford to lose that number of your staff? Or even half that number, assuming some won’t leave? Probably not, considering the openings versus employee counts we’re currently seeing. More to the point, can you afford to never hear from that percentage of applicants because they don’t want to work somewhere that mandates their physical presence in the office? From talking to people, it seems money doesn’t resolve this issue. Working from home is a tangible benefit, and whatever a company offers, the next one might match with the WFH option.

There was a slow change going on in IT, where a significant percentage of staff were working at least part-time from home; the pandemic just sped that process up—shifted it left and iterated, so to speak, and now HR and management are going to have to deal with this reality head-on.

I’ve felt that some of the positions I’ve held at some of the organizations I’ve worked at/for were best performed on-site. But we have enough successful 100% virtual companies now to acknowledge this might be a corporate culture issue and not a “job fit” issue.

I don’t know how companies will handle it, but absolutism is not the way forward here, IMO. Charlene and Michael Davis had some thoughts on WFH and returning to the office you might want to listen to.

After all, you all are kicking it, and I know some of you don’t want to go back to the office. Can your org afford to lose you? Not if there is an easy way to avoid it.

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