Calling time on media’s dinosaur return-to-office debate

Calling time on media’s dinosaur return-to-office debate

We must stop pretending that leaders advocating for four days a week or more in the office care about inclusion.

Have you heard the one about the CEO who is concerned that his employees aren’t working hard enough on Fridays because they are at home?

Or the publishing chief who can’t see the conflict in bemoaning the fact that their junior team don’t understand the joys of a boozy lunch on a Friday, yet somehow aren’t working hard enough? Especially if they happen to be working from home.

Bruce Daisley, one of the most progressive commentators on workplace culture, hits the nail on the head when he explains: “The most limiting factor in work right now is the urge to hang on to ideas of what it takes to create success.”

A physical office is not and never has been the temple of innovation some in the industry would like to believe.

Current levels of industry debate on hybrid working match only the “millennials would be able to get on the property ladder if they would just lay off the avocado” discourse for the utter lack of empathy, humility or nuance.

This approach risks a people-first industry getting hamstrung by one-size-fits-all frameworks that set many up to fail. Too many companies are driving forward with process-ahead-of-people policies, which alienate employees and disproportionately impact women.

Dial down the WFH judgement

We are in danger of amplifying inequality with this approach.

For it is women in the media who carry the burden of judgement for working from home. While most progressive companies have equity baked into their policies, others are driving one-size-fits-all mandates under the guise of treating everyone “fairly”. But there is no fairness without equity.

Consider the expectation and financial pressure on part-time staff — who are disproportionately women — at companies that mandate these employees to be in the office as much as full-time ones.

Or the expectation that people with caring responsibilities — again, disproportionately women — should shift their “office days” every week as the result of a rota system brought in because the agency does not actually have the required desk space to accompany its return-to-office directive.

Company policies are in danger of creating unnecessary problems. A leader recently shared her frustration with me, having lost two brilliant senior women because they were not able to work four days a week in the office. The leader’s high-performance team has been processed out of existence by a mandate from the US. Yet there was surprise from the leadership team when those two women did exactly what they said they would do and resigned after the policy was announced. Leaders still aren’t listening to women.

Many in our industry are having to publicly back office policies that they are fighting long and hard against in private. At the same time, their leaders are arguing that office time automatically equates innovation, while continuing to move forward with the offshoring of huge swathes of their businesses.

There is an Olympic-sized swimming pool of talent the media industry could access. Yet the obsession with presenteeism means many organisations are content to fish from the half-filled paddling pool of the M25 commuter belt.

So before you rush to an assumption of why hybrid working is to blame for any given problem, can we stop to consider how many women’s careers are being crushed on little more than the hunches of powerful men?

A stale narrative

The narrative surrounding hybrid working is driven by media platforms hellbent on maintaining the status quo. There is a red thread between the Evening Standard editor-in-chief Dylan Jones’ hyperbole that “remote working is killing London” and changes in commuting patterns being cited as a reason for the newspaper going weekly.

As an industry, we are still more comfortable lamenting the decline of print publications than women’s careers.

We continue to treat the industry’s stubborn gender pay gap as if it is entirely out of the control of company leaders. When you treat glaring inequalities as if they were a freak weather incident, rather than the consequence of policies and processes that conspire to squeeze women out of their jobs, it is akin to pollution by words — and we are all breathing in this stale air.

Plus, there’s a failure to acknowledge that the fundamental shift afoot in the workplace is not bad for business. The Bank of England found that for each extra day a company’s average employee works remotely, that company’s productivity is around £15,000 higher.

The return-to-office debate is over

Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist and one of the foremost researchers on work-from-home policies, recently unveiled a study that found employees who work from home for two days a week are just as productive and as likely to be promoted as their colleagues who are in the office full time.

Crucially, in an industry that continues to struggle with employee churn, the research revealed that resignations fell by 33% among workers who shifted from working full time in the office to a hybrid schedule. Women, non-managers and employees with long commutes were least likely to quit their jobs when their treks to the office were cut to three days a week.

“If managed right, letting employees work from home two or three days a week still gets you the level of mentoring, culture-building and innovation that you want,” Bloom says. “From an economic policymaking standpoint, hybrid work is one of the few instances where there aren’t major trade-offs with clear winners and clear losers. There are almost only winners.”

The inclusion myth

Yet the industry is still setting women up to fail and crushing employee engagement in the process. According to the All In census, the average number of days spent working in the office for full-time employees was 2.2 days, while the number that respondents would ideally like to spend in the office was 1.9 days. So why aren’t leaders listening?

It cannot be sustainable for leaders to pick up accolades for inclusion and wax lyrical on industry panels without considering the world through a lens other than their own. Inclusion is an action, not a soundbite.

This dinosaur approach is limiting the industry’s ability to attract and retain the best talent. It is hindering this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better.

I hope the leaders planning the September surprise of a fresh round of return-to-office mandates take this moment as a genuine pause for thought. If we keep using the past as a blueprint for the future, we will never create cultures where organisations and individuals can reach their full potential.

Now is the time to measure leaders on deeds, not words. It’s time to face the facts that hybrid working isn’t the problem — outdated attitudes are.

Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now editorial director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

Career Leaders: The Media Leader‘s weekly supplement with thought leadership, news and analysis dedicated about media careers, training, development and wellbeing.
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