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Employees want remote-work tools, not in-office mandates

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Employees want remote-work tools, not in-office mandates, Atlassian says

As back-to-office orders stir discontent, half of those employees who work outside of the office say they do not have remote-work tools, Atlassian study shows.

By Charlotte Trueman
Senior Writer, Computerworld | JUN 15, 2023

As companies tweak their remote work polices in the wake of the pandemic a new study from collaboration software company Atlassian shows that in-office mandates are unpopular with employees, and that half of those who do at least some work from home have not been given access to distributed-work technology.

The study was based on survey responses from 1,000 knowledge workers in the US and Australia. Of those polled, 71% said they work away from an office at least once per week, yet only 51% of that group said that their company provides them with remote collaboration tools.

Additionally, 26% of those who are provided with remote collaboration tools said those tools aren’t necessarily right for their job or they’ve not been provided with adequate training on those applications to be effective.

At the same time, Atlassian noted, employers that have issued back-to-office mandates have been decrying a supposed decline in productivity and blaming it on remote work. But Atlassian — whose Jira, Trello and Confluence applications are geared for hybrid-work environments — pointed to its survey results to conclude that problems with distributed work are not related to the physical separation of employees but rather, that companies aren’t providing their workers with the right tools or ways of working in order to make a success of such a strategy.

Atlassian defines distributed work as any work that happens in more than one place — the office and at home, for example.

“There’s so much back and forth with CEOs right now saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got to come back to the office,’ as if that’s going to deliver better results,” said Annie Dean, head of Atlassian’s Team Anywhere, the company’s distributed work policy that allows their employees to work from anywhere.
Dean said that this sentiment is at odds with the fact some companies have experienced strong business performance while their employees were working from home over the last three years, and research that shows workers themselves have said they feel more productive when working from home.

Has remote worker productivity really declined?
However, whether employee productivity has, in reality, increased or declined is an open question. The Atlassian survey results do not measure the actual productivity of those surveyed, and companies that have issued back-to-office mandates have not, in general, offered hard data that shows whether or not employee productivity has declined.

While there perhaps isn’t one metric that provides a definitive answer to whether productivity is really diminishing overall, it is in any case a profoundly challenging time for employees, said Chris Marsh, research director for S&P Market Intelligence. Whether or not productivity has declined, friction between employers and employees is real.

“Basic challenges around work [are now] clashing with demands from leaders for more operational agility and growing expectations from employees around the experience they have in their day-to-day work,” he said, adding that there are various contributing factors to growing management-staff tension. These include: operational silos, the volatile macroeconomic climate, fragmented and underfunded technology strategies, and the feeling that employees have that they are not being supported.

“Resolution is going to require more than piecemeal change, and won’t be fixed by return-to-office mandates,” Marsh said.

In-office mandates aren’t popular
Eighty-two percent of respondents to Atlassian’s survey said that they have some form of “in-office mandate,” with 46% of respondents saying they go into the office because their company mandates it, rather than because they want to. Even at companies where employees are supposedly able to choose whether they come into the office or not, 25% say they still feel pressure to go in, and 10% are concerned they will be viewed as less productive or uncommitted to their work if they work from home.

Last week, Google announced it would be starting to factor office attendance into employee performance reviews, reevaluating the remote status of some employees and asking others to consider switching to the company’s hybrid work schedule, which mandates they spend three days a week in the office.

While Google said in a statement that its hybrid approach is “designed to incorporate the best of being together in person with the benefits of working from home for part of the week,” Dean challenged this notion, calling the behavior “coercive” on the part of Google.

“I think the status quo is a powerful thing and [mandates like this] are the last gasp of the status quo,” Dean said. “By trying to tell employees that the experience they had for the last three years — where they were really productive, were fully compensated, and didn’t have performance reviews based on office attendance — was not real, I think will result in a backlash.”

In absence of mandates, some workers still come into the office
Dean, though, still believes that the office provides a valuable place for employees to come together — she points to the fact that despite Atlassian having zero requirement for employees to come into the office, 78% of the company’s employees came into the office during the last quarter.

“I still think people want to come to the office so you don’t need to enforce a mandate or tie attendance to performance,” she said. “[Companies like Google] would still see good office attendance because people want to connect with one another.”

Pointing to S&P Global’s own 2022 Voice of the Enterprise: Workforce Productivity and Collaboration survey, Marsh said, “If you do the aggregates on that data then 82% wanted to work at least some of their time remotely compared to 45% before 2020. That shows a very clear and significant uplift in employees’ preference for more flexible working. I doubt those figures have changed significantly since.”

Atlassian’s stance, meanwhile, is that productivity problems are not the result of distributed work per se. “We know what the biggest working problems are,” said Dean. “There’s too many meetings, emails are not synthesized, or just provide half-baked viewpoints that are not a great record of what’s happening.”

None of these things get solved by being an office, she argued, adding that they get solved by using technology differently and adapting new ways of working that really “represent the frontier” of new knowledge work.

Work-life balance an increasing concern for employees
The Atlassian survey also highlighted that successful hybrid and remote work policies can benefit employees outside of their working hours. Among those surveyed without any mandated in-office time, 56% said they spend more time with friends and family, 49% of respondents spend more time on physical fitness or self-care, and 37% have pursued a new hobby or interest, specifically because they are not required to be in the office for a specified amount of time.

The S&P’s Marsh said that flexible work conditions are now a big draw for employers that offer them. “In another of our Voice of the Enterprise: Workforce Productivity and Collaboration 2022 surveys, having more flexible work conditions and a better work-life balance came out as the number two reason why employees would leave their employer and go and work someone else,” Marsh said, adding it was only just behind having better compensation or benefits elsewhere.

With so many knowledge workers having experienced remote working over the last three years, Dean said companies will not be able to we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

“The companies that are forcing employees back in the office are going to face an extraordinary amount of friction,” she said. “Distributed work is a thing. Technology enables it, and everyone knows it.”

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