Mangers Don’t Care About Productivity or Culture, They Care About Their Mini-Fiefdom.

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

The return to office is officially in full swing with occupancy levels in many parts of the country surpassing those of the previously attempted return to office in late 2021. With this return to office push, a showdown between management and employees is beginning to take shape. According to a recent Business Insider article, 77% of managers surveyed would be willing to fire employees for failing to return to the office full time by the end of the year. So, let’s take a deep dive into whether this is based on data, or maybe something far less quantifiable.

March 2020 brought on the most rapid change in workforce dynamics this country has seen in a century. Within 3 weeks’ time, a workforce largely confined to office spaces since the dawn of the information age was made remote. A feat that many within the business world stated simply couldn’t be done and was far from sustainable, yet when faced with no other option became suddenly feasible.

As remote work went from pipedream to reality many employees were faced with entirely new challenges. The need to learn new technology, learn to interface with colleagues virtually, and manage projects remotely became necessities, and people did, as people do, they adapted. As weeks turned into months turned into years, people not only adapted but excelled.

According to the same article from Business Insider productivity and engagement improved or stayed the same according to 73% of managers. Additionally, 68% of them stated that full remote operations would positively impact the bottom line of the company. So, if 3 out of every 4 companies experienced an improvement in productivity and engagement, in addition to increased profits, why are they forcing people back into the office?

The real reason managers and supervisors want employees back in the office has little to nothing to do with productivity, engagement, or any other quantifiable metric. They want people back in the office for one reason. Control.

Remote workforces are inherently more autonomous. The manager doesn’t have the ability to stroll down the row of cubicles, watching as people scramble to minimize screens containing anything but the most important of work. They can’t drop in on meetings and give their .02 where no one is interested. But most of all they can’t lord over the peons forced to work in a sterile office, with their 3ft x 3ft workspace from their corner office. Essentially, gone are the days when they felt as though they ruled a tiny fiefdom, where status was quickly identifiable, and therein lies the real reason for their desire to get people back into the office. This can be seen if we just look at a few different markers of status in the office environment.

Space

Space is at a premium in any office. If you are paying by the foot to maintain an office space, then that is a base cost, and thus priced at a premium. This leads to sterile, cramped, and often uncomfortable workspaces for many. Remote workers are able to design their own workspace. They can include houseplants, natural light, standing desks, walking treadmills, and a huge array of other accessories. They can control the lighting, temperature, and general feel of the space in which they work. In essence, they gain a real modicum of control over their workspaces in terms of both size and functionality. This quickly erodes the perceived chasm between workers and management. Gone are the days of flaunting your place in a hierarchy by the size of your workspace.

Meetings

Meetings have been part of the corporate world since the dawn of time. A meeting of minds, a melding of ideas, or so most would have you think. In reality, most meetings are simply a waste of time. A place where the person who scheduled the meeting (typically the boss), can talk at their subordinates. Imagine the last in-person meeting you were at. Where did the highest-ranking manager sit? I am going to guess it was very likely at the head of whatever table you were around. I would also guess they were the only one with access to the pointer and display. Everyone was transfixed on them because nodding off would be seen as disrespectful and as we all know, perceived respect is very important in an office setting. At home, meetings are democratized. Zoom may have a presenter, but the sense of hierarchy disappears. Instead, individuals are simply part of the whole and can contribute as such.

Control

This is in my opinion the most important, and likely most relevant change when talking about a return to the office. Remote workers were given control of their time, surroundings, and work. Because micromanagement was no longer feasible, managers and supervisors were forced to allow staff to work semi-autonomously and trust that they would complete their work on time. Based on the data from studies conducted throughout the pandemic this is exactly what happened. Management sees this as a threat to their role within the hierarchy. If employees can be trusted to complete their work without immediate supervision of every task, is it truly necessary to have so many levels of management? The likely answer is no, bureaucracy has been killing corporate America for decades, but is unlikely to change. Control of their tiny piece of the world is as important, if not more important to most managers than maximizing productivity and employee happiness.

So, with companies demanding employees return to the office, and managers threatening to terminate them if they do not where do we stand? That’s the million-dollar question. In one of the most employee-favored markets in history, and with an economy that is increasingly lucrative for freelancers what will happen? Management isn’t going to be able to make a real argument based on data, so instead, they will opt for less tangible impacts. Company culture is the flavor of the week. Will employees go for it or call their bluff? I for one hope they call their bluff, I know I will.

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Anorakku

Aspiring fiction writer, developer, lifelong student, seeker of meaning.