Are you rushing back to the office?

I happened upon a day working in a city office recently. While I did appreciate the change of scenery I was struck by how few people occupied the floor I was on and how much extra money I spent. A coffee here, take away lunch, parking and tolls. It adds up! I had also forgotten how much time is taken up in the process of getting to an office. While I am not advocating an entirely remote working life, many organisations and employees are weighing the benefits and costs of a return to the office. 

The post-pandemic era has seen organisations grappling to strike a balance between in-person collaboration and the diverse needs of their employees. Now as some companies force employees back into the office the impacts, like the flexibility benefits will not be evenly distributed. 

Titans Return to the Office

Tech giants like Apple, Google, and Amazon have recently initiated phased returns to in-office work. Amazon’s call for employees to be in the office three days a week triggered global protests, highlighting the magnitude of the change. Amazon has faced recent criticism for tracking and penalising employees who work from home too much.  Similarly, Meta, previously Facebook, emphasised the power of in-person collaboration and trust-building through face-to-face interactions. Ironically Zoom, the very symbol of remote work, decided that employees should return to the office two days a week. Meanwhile, Australia’s Commonwealth Bank has mandated that staff need to be office-based 50% of the time. 

Unpacking the Impact on Neurodiverse Individuals

Amidst the return-to-work movement, it’s crucial to consider the impact on diverse employees such as neurodiverse individuals. Traditional office environments, laden with sensory stimuli, distractions, and social interactions, often pose challenges.

This recent blog emphasised remote work’s advantages for neurodiverse individuals, including sensory comfort, reduced distractions, and flexible hours to align with peak productivity. From our research, 68% of neurodivergent people prefer to work remotely at least some of the time. Personally I have come to realise that an open plan office and the constant flow of people, digital notifications and distracting conversations were harmful to my mental health and productivity. 

It is also important to recognise intersectionality where unique needs converge. Neurodivergent individuals, for example, may also be caregivers. Caregivers, responsible for family members while managing their careers, benefit significantly from remote work’s flexibility. The ability to juggle caregiving duties and work obligations in a more balanced manner fosters well-being and job satisfaction.

Is there an upside to the office?

Yes, I believe there are advantages to working alongside your colleagues. We are social beings after all. At Xceptional we have operated a distributed team since the beginning of the pandemic. With no plans to return to the office, we are now implementing deliberate team times through the year. These times are deliberately lighter on operational work and emphasise connecting socially and brainstorming ideas for future initiatives. 

In this HBR article To Get People Back in the Office, Make It Social The value of the office is seen in people rather than the physical office space. Employees everywhere are seeking a compelling reason to return to the office even part of the time. Microsoft Work Trend Index research shows:

  • 73% of employees need more than just company expectations to return to the office. 
  • 85% are motivated by rebuilding team bonds
  •  84% by socialising with coworkers.

For diverse employees, being present and visible in an office can lead to enhanced social connections and the opportunity for mentorship and networking. Kearney argues ‘this aspect holds particular significance for diverse employees, for whom this interpersonal interaction is especially beneficial given it is traditionally sparse’.

The risk of one size fits all. 

Mandating a return to the office post-COVID can have several negative impacts on both employees and the overall work environment. This move can also disrupt the work-life balance that remote work affords, leading to increased stress and burnout among employees who now have to contend with commuting and the associated time constraints.

In addition to neurodivergent people, it is feared the shift back to the office could disproportionately affect certain demographics, such as parents and caregivers, who benefited from the flexibility of remote work. This may exacerbate existing inequalities in the workplace. 

Organisations could face resistance and attrition as employees seek positions with more accommodating remote or flexible work options, potentially resulting in a loss of talent. However, recently some large employers have been accused of adopting a like it or lump it approach in mandating return to the office. 

The return-to-work landscape requires organisations to navigate the delicate balance between inclusivity and productivity. Policies, systems and inclusive leadership that incorporate diverse needs while fostering in-person collaboration and connection will deliver benefits for organisations and employees.

What is your experience? Are you rushing to return to the office or dreading the company wide memo?

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