Opinion: working from home has shown many employees that they do not need a manager or superviser to get work done

My wife and I are both university professors and neither of us has been in a classroom or office since March. Instead, we teach multiple courses online, attend Zoom meetings and get much of our work done via email, online apps and the like.  There are definite downsides. We do not spend as much time with students or fellow staff. The chance for coffee with colleagues, and the occasional spontaneous interaction that leads to a great idea (it does happen, but only rarely) is a thing of the past. Still, all in all, I do not miss going to the office, and I suspect I am not alone.

We are now more than six months into an unplanned experiment to see if businesses can continue to operate successfully with a substantial portion of their workforce working from home. To be sure, "working from home" is not a realistic option for much of the workforce such as gardai, nurses, firefighters, chefs etc. But many of us have shifted to remote work, and it is unclear when or if we will go back to the old way of doing things.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, Elaine Burke from Silicon Republic and Fergal O'Brien from IBEC on Google's decision to ditch plans for a new office in Dublin

There is considerable disagreement in the business community about how, or even if working from home is a viable approach to employment. A shift away from going to the office to work has implications for employers, employees, families and communities, but the effects go well beyond the organisation.  A change from office work to working from home has implications for employment law, and the commercial real estate market. 

Many articles in the business press insist that the office is here to staybut there are reasons to doubt that we will go back to normal as soon as this virus is under control. It is clear that employees are generally reluctant to go back to the office. Employees have reacted more positively to work from home than most business leaders predicted and, from their point of view, the benefits of working from home can be substantial. Once you have gone several months without commuting, wearing a suit and going to meetings, it might be hard to envision going back.

Of course, what employees want and what they get are not always the same thing. Several commentators have argued that it is management, not the employees, who will ultimately settle the future of the officewith the implication that employees will be forced to return. While it is not completely clear whether they will attempt to force people back to the office, the bigger question is why?. Workplaces are expensive to create, obtain and maintain, and you might think that managers would be keen to shed these costs.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Caroline McEnery from the HR Suite on the rights of people working from home

There are three reasons to gather employees into a common workplace. First, there is a persistent belief that face-to-face interactions, especially among team members, are important to the team's success. Research on virtual versus face-to-face teams suggests that neither method of working together is always preferable and that geographically dispersed virtual teams are likely to be with us even if people go back to their regular offices. 

Second, there is the belief that interactions in the office, including informal and unplanned ones, are a key to creativity and problem solving. Again, the research is not so clear; these interactions can be helpful, but they are often unproductive and even counterproductive. The nature and effects of these interactions can depend on things like the design of office space and the frequency of interactions with different types of coworkers. 

The most important reason for the common workplace is that gathering people into a physical workspace is a critical tool for managers and supervisors to exert power. When employees are gathered together, it becomes easier to observe and direct their behavior. In the historical scheme of things, having people come to the office to do their work is a relatively modern innovation, and it is tied to emerging ideas of management and control.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on the future of work with Ella McSweeney, David Collings, Alma McCarthy and Kevin Murphy

Perhaps the most insidious reason your boss might want you to return to work is that if employees work remotely, the need for bosses becomes less and less clear. Over the last 50 years, there has been increasing emphasis on flattening organisations and getting rid of unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, and many employees are finding out that they do not particularly need a boss breathing over their shoulders. What if upper management reaches the same conclusion? There has been considerable pushback to the idea that we can do without supervisors and managers, but the last six months has been a trial run of how well employees and organisations get along without close supervision. 

It is too early to tell for sure whether organizations can continue to function and thrive with a dispersed workforce, but the push to get employees back to the office should be evaluated with care. If nothing else, the past few months should make both employers and employees rethink the costs and benefits of having employees come back to the office. If the conclusion is that all of the commuting, commercial rents, meetings, dry-cleaning bills and daily hassles of coming to the office are there mainly to make managers feel like they are useful, it might be hard to justify the bringing back the old way of doing things. 

Will we ever go back to the office? For some people, the answer is likely to be 'yes'. But organisations have a unique chance to rethink and redesign the way work gets done, and it is a good bet that some organisations will start thinking very differently about what it means to "go to work".


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ