Opinion: performance management is the real unspoken reason behind the rush to bring us back to open-plan office hell

Many businesses are pressing workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic to return to the office. Major financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are using a mix of carrots (food trucks and bonuses) and sticks (letters demanding employees return and preferential treatment of employees who return) to persuade office workers to return. Irish workers too are starting to feel pressure to return to the office, at least part-time.

But it is not always clear why people should return to the office. For most workers (although more so for males than females), remote work has been a positive experience. Organisations could save a tremendous amount of money if they did not have to provide offices to employees. Why, then, is there such a push to bring employees back to the office?

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday With Katie Hannon, what are the concerns over returning to work in the office in the coming months?

There are three arguments that most employers offer when pressed to explain why they want employees to return to the office. First, there is a widespread belief that spontaneous interactions in the workplace are critical to innovation and creativity. But there is very little evidence to support this belief. If anything, bringing people into a central location where they might interact appears to stifle creativity and innovation, not encourage it. For many years, architects and planners encouraged the development of open office floorplans on the assumption that they would foster creative interactions. Instead, they are often noisy and distracting, leading employees to put on headphones to screen out the noise and avoid even looking at their coworkers

Second, it is often argued that spending long periods together helps to develop a strong and productive organisational culture. The term "organisational culture" refers to shared beliefs and values that characterise an organisation, and employers often list building and re-establishing the culture of their organisations as a top priority for the post-pandemic period.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Eddie Keane from the University of Limerick on the obligations and actions for both employers and workers when going back to the office

While the leaders of most organisations insist that their company has a strong culture and that this is important to the organisation's success, support for this belief is often mixed at best. Some do have strong and unique cultures, but it is not clear that these contribute in a meaningful way to success. For example, Google’s culture was once described by the phrase "Don’t Be Evil". As the company got larger, this phrase almost seemed like a parody to many long-term employees.

Some companies have cultures that encourage and expect near total dedication to work; Elon Musk memorably claimed that nobody changed the world working 40 hours a week. Even when corporate cultures are not destructive, the evidence that they contribute to the success of organisations is ambiguous at best. Most organisations have cultures that are weak and largely interchangeable, and it is doubtful that efforts to develop strong cultures do all that much good.

Third, many organisations interpret coming to the office as a sign of commitment. Much has been written in recent years about the curse of presenteeism and the idea that simply showing up and being seen in the office is valuable and important. In many organisations, the first to come and the last to leave are rewarded and valued, and woe to the employee who leaves for home before his or her manager. The assumption that people who work from home are less committed to their jobs than those who work from the office is just that, an assumption without much credible data to back it up.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, how working from home has shown many employees that they do not need a manager or superviser to get work done

Innovation, culture and commitment represent the three most frequent public explanations for the drive to bring workers back to the office. But there is a fourth unspoken reason your boss wants you back in the office and that is control. The topic of performance management is often dressed up in positive buzzwords like empowerment, feedback and engagement, but the essence of performance management is pushing employees to set personal goals that align with the strategic needs of your organisation and then enforcing those goals. Yes, the essence of modern management is not all that different from the approach favored in the early days of the Industrial Revolution – you tell people what to do and then make sure they do it.

Remote workers are harder to manage and harder to control. If there are no workers on the premises to observe and supervise, the question of why we have managers at all might soon arise, and management is having none of that.

If we have learned anything from our sustained experiment with remote work, we have learned that employees probably do not need the type and level of control from above that was common before the pandemic. The question is whether we will internalise that lesson. Many organisations seem to have learned that they do not need to spend so much on offices and all the overheads they entail. Whether they will also learn that they do not need to worry so much about controlling workers is still an open question.


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