My son has been working from home (my home, not his!) for the first year of his professional life. His on-site physical presence is required only once or twice a month, so at first, we saw quite a lot of him. Recently, however, bored and a bit lonely, he has started voluntarily going in to work twice a week, getting up at 5 a.m., travelling two hours (assuming no strike) and spending his meagre salary on South Western Railway’s peak fares. Meanwhile, his boomer mom works happily at the dining room table, enjoying the solitude and missing nothing at all about the London commute or the (whisper it softly!) mandatory team-building events.
The battle over ‘return to work’
Although working from home was already on the uptick, today, five times as many people are working from home than pre-Covid. Like my son, many of these miss the human contact of the workplace; others are less bothered. Research shows that people’s preferences about where they work vary considerably, depending on their age, family circumstances, living conditions, and probably, their personality. What is clear is that most people want to be able to choose when and where they work and prefer a hybrid model that gives them that freedom. But many employers are unconvinced.
Last week, Zoom joined the ranks of US employers Google, Disney and Amazon in ordering their staff back to work full-time – ironic, given the role Zoom played in keeping our pandemic noses to the remote grindstone. But workers are not giving in without a fight. In Australia, unions recently won the right for thousands of federal workers to work unlimited days at home. Federal workers in Canada recently lost a similar case. So, the battle over return to work is most definitely not over.
What does the research say?
So, does the newly aggressive stance of some employers on returning to work actually make sense from a business perspective? A recent study suggests not. While the researchers found that a fully remote workplace is, on average, 10% less productive than a fully in-person one, it also points out that companies who allow remote working can achieve compensatory savings on reduced office space and the ability to source cheaper global labour.
When it comes to hybrid working, the ‘hard ass’ approach makes even less sense. The study found that hybrid working has between zero impact and a slightly positive impact on worker productivity by comparison with a fully in-person working. So, you have to ask yourself - if your people really want to work some of the time from home, why hack them off for no discernible gain – and potentially a loss – in productivity?
Working from home and insider risk
But productivity is only one part of the equation. One of the less talked about downsides of WFH and hybrid working is its implications for an organisation’s insider risk. On the one hand, having a happy workforce with the flexibility to spend more time with their families and work to their own timetables should significantly increase employee satisfaction – and thus reduce insider risk. But on the other hand, some aspects of working from home make it much harder for the employer to manage insider risk.
Some of the challenges are technical – people working on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, using shadow IT workarounds, downloading sensitive information onto unsecured devices, or making basic IT security errors because there is no one there to ask for advice. However, these issues can become manageable with a properly resourced IT security team and a commitment to good staff training.
Trickier, however, are the psychological and motivational challenges. How do managers keep people motivated from a distance? How do you spot when a colleague is distressed or dissatisfied when you only ever see them on a screen? How do you instil a sense of shared identity and common purpose when people don’t know what most of their colleagues do or even what they look like? How do people learn about the organisation’s culture and ‘how stuff is done around here’ when they don’t actually spend time ‘around here’? How do you ensure that career progression is fair for everyone if in-person employees have more access to informal networking opportunities than those choosing to work remotely, who are often women with caring responsibilities or other groups likely to experience discrimination?
Does this stuff still matter?
Maybe I’m being a bit rose-tinted and 20th century about all of this. Today’s employees are likely to change jobs and even careers more often than previous generations. Do they really need to feel an emotional commitment to their company and a shared identity with their colleagues in order to work hard and behave well? Or can we simply cement their diligence, good conduct and compliance with some firm policies and strong material incentives like pay, training opportunities and in-person or online yoga classes?
Certainly, in an environment where employers have to compete for the best talent, this approach is gaining popularity. Many firms that have strong-armed their employees back into the workplace are trying to make it up to them with workplace treats.
For instance, Canadian software company Lightspeed Commerce offers employees three meals a day and unlimited snacks! As an inveterate snacker, I find a lot to like about this, but I’m not sure that a bottomless supply of Snickers bars would keep me loyal if something really bad happened to shake my faith in my employer. Workplace friendships and a strong relationship with my manager, on the other hand, might.
The importance of social bonds
In the rush to keep employees happy, indeed, in the rush to keep employees full stop, companies should not lose sight of this. Pay and perks matter – but in the end, the social bonds that people develop in the workplace are your biggest protection against insider activity.
In the course of my work, I am frequently asked, “Why do people commit insider acts?”. But I think it’s actually much more interesting to consider why they don’t commit insider acts. Soldiers returning from wars often talk about the decision to fight rather than desert, not in terms of patriotism, but in terms of not letting down their mates. Employees who have strong relationships with colleagues and care about what other people think of them are unlikely to do the dirty on you.
So, yes, employers should do their best to support their people in finding the working pattern that suits their needs. And yes, they should by all means offer material incentives to attract and retain talent. But social bonds matter. And as humans, we have evolved to develop these bonds in shared physical spaces, not at the end of a screen.
I suggest that the basic human instinct that drove my son back onto South Western Railways is one that employers should not ignore. Hybrid working models that allow employees some flexibility in how and when they work but also actively foster that social instinct will improve productivity, morale and security. What’s not to like about that?
About the author
Dr Susanna Berry is the behavioural science lead for the insider risk consultancy in Blacksmiths Group. She previously spent a thirty year career in a range of foreign policy- and national security-related roles in UK government.