The Great Reverse Wave: Digital Disaster Instead of True Hybrid
Forced returns to offices due to wishful thinking about the end of a pandemic turned out to be a great recipe for failure: loss of employees and black employer PR. The work from home (WFH) model is based on trust. If the trust was established once, why was it not extended?
The sudden pandemic’s transfer of employees in 2020 to work from home is perceived as a great and successful test of digital, organizational, and process flexibility. In a very short time, companies and institutions switched almost all office workers, officials, and, understandably, IT employees to a remote work mode. When the pandemic receded, the people were relieved but then there was another spring wave, and then another wave after that. The Reverse Wave occurred when in the summer and fall of 2021 companies widely called for a return to the office work model, which existed before the pandemic.
Already, there was a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance on a large, basically global scale. Developers, testers, and DevOps did not understand, and they still do not understand, why after more than a year, when they’ve proved how effective they work remotely in practice, they were forced to return to their offices. However, this Reverse Wave became a fact, opening the stage for a great transfer window. In some IT organizations, the response to the strong call back to the offices was just as strong and widespread. We know cases of teams in companies where 80% of the IT people responded to this message by leaving them (their companies).
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What happened? What is the problem? Who has this problem? Where does such a drop in confidence in employers come from?
Of course, the bane of sitting in headphones for many hours tired many people. But, the meetings that took place in violation of the basic principles of the digital culture created the infamous “you are muted” as the corporate quote of the year. Something that could be achieved with one chat message or an e-mail often ended with another item on the calendar with a link to a Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet. Those who love control, and were somewhat deprived of it during the WFH periods, comforted themselves with meetings as a substitute. That meant creating meeting overloads, filling up the calendars, dragging online meetings on forever, and augmenting them with additional customs and rituals. I suppose that these people transferred their bad habits to the digital side from the traditional office gatherings. There has been a lift and shift of corporate meetings. In the digital environment, the lack of communication hygiene and the inability to effectively exchange information is perhaps even more burdensome than in the traditional environment of open spaces and meeting rooms.
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What about creativity?
In order not to be accused of hypocrisy, my Avenga Lab’s team is completely geographically dispersed. Personally, I don’t even know the addresses or the cities we connect from. It does not bother us at all and we do not need to know it for any reason. In this model, we successfully worked on very modern technological research and proof of concepts, delivered results, and enjoyed our joint achievements.
Therefore, we completely rejected the myth that creative work requires crowding people in a room, waving a pen on the blackboard, etc.. Let’s take a look at our watches. It is the end of 2021, we have fiber optics, 5G, and most have learned where the “mute” buttons are in the respective online meeting tools. Let’s get rid of those stereotypes.
This does not mean that we do not meet the clients who clearly prefer this form of workshop or discussion. Respect for the diversity of approaches is the foundation of a modern business approach.
At this point, of course, we understand that not everyone must, and may have the environment and preference for such work. Not everyone can arrange it properly, and not everyone wants to learn and change it. We understand this perfectly, so of course, we are also great opponents of “expelling” those who work best from offices, who appreciate face-to-face meetings, sipping coffee together, and lunches that strengthen the feeling of “community“.
Employers should provide optimal work conditions in two ways without depreciating either of them. Typically, passive aggressive HR attitudes such as “now we will work normally in the office” are only a manifestation of the detachment from reality and a lack of empathy.
The recipe for losing a tech employee
Avenga Professionals is a very important part of Avenga, and they have huge and intense contact with the candidate market. The remote work question is one of the first and key questions from most candidates unless the recruiter asks them the very same question first.
The more forceful the Reverse Wave, the more candidates will be available on the market to be potentially hired by your competitors. If management obsessions from the previous mental age (has nothing to do with biological age) are more important than the effectiveness of digital transformation, including ensuring the right composition of teams at the right time, then . . . well, I’ll let everyone finish this sentence in their own context.
You can’t be offended that someone prefers their own personal coffee, chair, room, or laptop. It’s nice that there is fruit, ice cream, and other bonuses for people working in the office, and they will surely be pleased. I ran into attitudes like “What ungrateful people! We have such lovely offices and so many perks”. It does not mean (usually) that they do not like you, do not respect you, or are already trying to leave their current jobs.
Many tech people, faced with such tremendous hiring pressures on the market as they are now, are subconsciously looking for one additional reason to change. The great Reverse Wave can encourage them to leave, even people who have been satisfied, loyal, and very productive so far. This is a significant change that has turned the employer-employee relationship upside down forever.
For people who are called technological, the most important thing is the meaning and purpose of their work. What they do, how they do it, and what they do it for. The office is part of the “how to do it“, however it is not the most important part. I am glad that more and more decision-makers understand this. This understanding is also occurring in huge global companies with whom we have the pleasure to work with. I am so glad that it is candidly obvious at Avenga in all our offices worldwide.
The phenomenon of the great Reverse Wave does not only apply to local IT departments and companies. Even Apple waved the rainbow flag of tolerance, showing off its verbal empathy and sensitivity to the environment but people again showed the true corporate face, calling on even people with disabilities or those who are the only carers of young children to come back to the famous campus. So, the black PR bomb also fell on them. Such a popular, but well-known example should hopefully persuade decision-makers to stop the great Reverse Wave in IT.
Tons of experiences have already been gathered and “worked through“. Organizations that have been burned by the forced Reverse Wave are already looking for a compromise and have changed their minds. It is difficult to collide with the employees who have clearly voted for the work model they experienced in recent months. In addition to the sense and purpose of work (impact), the criterion of the freedom to choose the place of its performance (including the office option) is crucial for 64% – 80% of employees in the technological arena. Of course, there will be a group of companies that will try to play hard ball with the rules they have set. Soon, however, they will run out of “players” and will convert to a model of full outsourcing of IT teams much faster than they think.
Work effectiveness dispute
Let the efficiency talk be based on facts and data, not prejudices.
So, let’s take a look at the effectiveness of remote and hybrid work. Various studies confirm that the efficiency of work performed remotely can be and often is greater, and at the same time performing work takes more time when in the office. This means that after completing a particular task, an employee will spend extra time on other things. Plus, employees are happier with more time spent with their relatives, friends, and non-work-related activities without losing their precious time for commuting.
The second question is about teamwork. Is creative work in a distributed and remote team impossible? From my experience, I have strong objections. I believe that this is a way to increase the maturity and shared responsibility within teams. This strengthens, not weakens, the design structure.
The third question is an issue that was mentioned earlier. How the availability of remote work, as a well-thought-out model with clear rules, affects the stability of employment? Will it cause problems in acquiring and maintaining competencies? Will it be easier for us to recruit talent in a region with a lower average or median wage? Or maybe it will discourage our specialists from looking for better pay? In a word: does it strengthen or weaken the tech staff stability?
Quality of remote work
Quality of work is a key issue. My guess is, this is the root cause of all the dilemmas of HR strategists discussing the option of working remotely. Will the services and systems of the expected quality go into production at the same time? Is it possible to implement the information flow and production schemes that we are so proud of? I do not think that this dilemma can be easily answered. However, I assume that the quality and effectiveness will not decrease if the on-site formula included mature, measured, and improved models. If there were problems with this before the pandemic, I doubt that the remote work model could make the situation worse.
The only way is forward
Summing up the experience of the great Reverse Wave, it must be said that there is still room to fix the problem. There is no way back to “just as it was” before, as everybody has learned, and some hard way. The experience of recent months convinces us to adopt a new set of rules for the digital hybrid environment.
What does hybrid even mean then? The real, modern, and natural hybrid is not a hard line between “Monday and Wednesday at the office, and the rest of the days remotely“. Rather, it is the cloud-based use of office resources that should be the basis for creative and well-done work, wherever it is performed. It means trust and results-based work assessments instead of forcing people one way or the other.
This will allow you to keep tech employees’ retention under control and build your own competitive advantage for the acquisition of new talent while shaping a culture of trust and loyalty. Today, many organizations still have the opportunity to fix the problems they caused with the great Reverse Wave and the sooner they do it, the better.