“What’s the one thing you’d change about the world of work?” asks Ben Voyer, who is a leading expert and academic researcher specialised in behavioural science. “For some, it is working for a company with a true meaning and bigger purpose. For others, it is never meeting colleagues in real life. In this thought-provoking article in The New York Times, some workers discuss quitting companies without having met anyone in real life. What comes out is that it feels easier to quit a company when there are no physical bonds. Ever since the pandemic started and the working from home (WFH) transition started, I have warned of the dangers of the WFH panacea, and of a rising trend of employees ‘ghosting’ their employers. If you work in the knowledge industry, you’re only a few clicks away from a better salary, and you can decide where you want to be based – that’s the whole ‘digital nomad’ idea. But quitting can be as easy as closing your laptop and disconnecting from Zoom…
If workplaces could be more baroque, workers would probably flock back to the office.
“Headquarters and offices, however, do more than provide office space for employees. They are the material, physical incarnation of a company. The emotions one has when entering Apple’s ‘spaceship’ campus is impossible to reproduce in any other form. Working in the City in London, or Wall Street in New York comes with symbolic rewards that can be experienced physically every day. One of the missions of Baroque architecture was ‘to astonish and delight’. Those visiting baroque buildings – from castles to churches – were greeted by something that was more than a functional space. If workplaces could be more baroque, workers would probably flock back to the office.
“So, what is the baroque thing you’d like to see – or that you miss – in your company?”
“A really interesting article about the pitfalls of a fully remote workforce and the difficulties to nurture commitment among people who joined companies remotely, never met their colleagues, never went to the office,” comments Emmanuelle Léon, who is an expert in research on remote management. She shares Ben Voyer’s view that there is more to offices than meets the eye: “Offices are more than just a place to work, especially in the knowledge economy. Offices reflect companies’ culture, they provide information that no computer can duplicate. They enable newcomers to create professional networks. If offices were to disappear, what we mean by “engagement” would mainly shift: workers’ identity would be defined by their profession (what they do).
In an interview with The Choice, she adds that “remote work tends to weaken the links between the person and the company as a whole, but not the relationship to one’s manager and colleagues. In this hybrid environment, a company’s purpose needs to be looked at more seriously, and managers seen as bearers of this purpose.”
“Another element stroke me when reading the article. The authors mention that some companies have created new jobs such as ‘director of remote work’. At least if things go wrong, there will be someone to blame! More seriously, remote work is a way of working for which people need to be trained. At ESCP Business School, I have developed a course on virtual leadership as well as a remote training program for executives in partnership with professional training and certification specialist Skill First. It is very important to understand the changes at hand when working and managing remotely.”
Instead of focusing on ‘remote’ work, maybe it is time to rethink what we mean by work!
“Companies have realised that workers can be as productive remotely (on a part-time basis) as in the office… Sometimes even more productive, depending on the job they have. BUT workers’ well-being may be at risk with work overload, work-life balance and isolation. And these three elements will take place at the office as well as remotely. So instead of focusing on ‘remote’ work, maybe it is time to rethink what we mean by work!”
That’s one of the things the Reinventing Work chair has been looking into under her direction.
One of the things Ben Voyer, who has a chair of his “own”, is “really curious about is how to optimise WFH within a workforce. In terms of number of days per week, week per month, etc., but also in terms of having staff working on-site only.” As he explains in a podcast with the Financial Times, ultimately the optimal balance will be determined by what provides the best competitive advantage, that is, attracting and retaining top talents, and signing new contracts.
Only time (and more interdisciplinary research) will tell…
Emmanuelle Léon is an associate professor of human resource management at ESCP Business School and the scientific director of the Reinventing Work chair sponsored by Biwvak!. A specialist in management in the digital age, she conducts research projects focusing on teleworking, remote management and (new) workspaces. She is more broadly interested in the transformations induced by digital technology and artificial intelligence on management.
Benjamin Voyer is a full professor in the department of entrepreneurship at ESCP Business School as well as the scientific co-director of the Turning Points chair sponsored by Cartier. He is a behavioural scientist and interdisciplinary researcher, using innovative quantitative and qualitative research methods to investigate how self-perception and interpersonal relations affect cognition and behaviours in various contexts (consumption, organisational, cross-cultural…).
This post gives the views of its author, not the position of ESCP Business School.