The Problem with RTO

1,285 days ago, many of us were sent home to face an unknown future. Most of us had no idea that a couple of weeks would turn into over two years, that thousands of people in Alberta alone would die, and the long-term physical and mental health of millions would be affected. All we knew at the time was that we were going to have to live, learn, and work remotely, hoping that we’d be able to one day return to some form of “normal”.

What we found, however, was a new “normal”, one where we made due with the situation we were being forced to deal with, learning that it mattered more to us to be where we were comfortable and supported, and it was less about our employers and what they demanded.

For quite a while during the pandemic, many companies went through the motions of closing offices and declaring that they were going full remote, as it as more effective for their workforce. And, for a time, it looked like that was the way everyone was going to go.

Then the old normal started to return, wondering had happened while it was away and all but demanded an end to all this tomfoolery. The divide formed quickly, some companies – typically their CEOs – clambering for a return to office because “we need to collaborate”, “better communication”, “increased productivity”, “stronger company culture”, “everyone’s out golfing”, or any number of supposed requirements for seeing people back in centralized offices. Even stalwarts who famously announced going remote have reversed their statements and are imposing penalties if you fail to show up.

And it’s not landing well, not one bit. And while you might sit there and claim that this is a generational issue – those younger folks just want freedom – be keenly aware that my peeps, Generation X, is highly unhappy about this, because our near-feral upbringing aligned very well with having to work remotely. In the end, this is entirely a failure of leadership to trust.

And yes, I mean leadership, specifically. This isn’t a middle-management decision, this is from top-level executives who have decided that if they can’t see people when they look out their office doors, no work is being done. Sure, it’s a funny meme that people run away when the boss isn’t around, it’s been around for as long as there have been centralized places for people to work, including harvest grain by hand in the fields, shepherds falling asleep while watching their flocks, and so forth. You know how many times I’ve witnessed this kind of behaviour? Or even heard a story from someone who experienced this?

Exactly zero. It’s never happened.

That’s not to say that there aren’t those who don’t pull their weight, or (heaven forbid) have an off day. It won’t matter where they are, those people will continue to exist, and people will still have off days.

You can’t force collaboration by putting people in the same room. Anyone who’s run a brainstorming session will know the struggle of trying to get people to offer up ideas. Communication? I’m available nearly 24/7 thanks to the tools I received before COVID set in, all it takes is someone to ping, text, message, email, or phone me. Productivity occurs when people have meaningful work; I’ve had better productivity sitting in a beach house than some days staring out an office window because it’s too noisy, or too fucking cold because someone keeps playing with the thermostat. If you can’t instill company culture online, you’ll never have it in person, and threatening people to show up in the office only breeds resentment, so good luck with making culture a priority.

A particularly cynical view of this, particularly for those of us in the service industries, is that we pay a pretty penny for real estate to have fancy offices that we show off … not to our employees, but to our peers and prospective clients. And when that expensive floorspace is devoid of staff, we seem incapable, not busy, layabout and otherwise sponging off the company.

And that’s all on a personal level. You want the real impact of RTO? How much traffic are you willing to stomach after over three years of not having to deal with it? Time away from your family? How about all the extra pollution from traffic (really, a return to previous levels, which were blissfully reduced during COVID), affecting your health? Oh, and for those of you taking transit (good on you), how much shade are you going to cast at that person who coughed? What evilness did that outburst just let loose inside a small metal box? Or how about now being within direct physical contact with that toxic atmosphere at work, where your overbearing, underskilled manager is going to force you to do things because if you don’t show up and do as your told, you’re unemployed?

Are you all seriously willing to go back to the way things were, which we all hated?

Look, I’m not saying I’m standing on the side of the road with a big sign telling everyone to go home and give their employers the finger. There are reasons why being in-person are helpful, if not required (let’s just say that remote surgery is still pretty fringe stuff), and there are absolutely people who want to physically be around other people, because humans are, at heart, social animals. Just don’t give us bullshit excuses and tell us it’s chocolate – these are Jonestown-brewed excuses for other insecurities.

For the record, I will be going into the office. Not because I like it here, I don’t. I don’t like the commute. But decades of behaviour are hard to give up, and I find I think more clearly with more focus when working. I have a good office setup at home and I do use it, but I do better when I’m physically distanced from my fridge. And I like the people.

Talk to your coworkers. Consider your options. Companies might try to use penalties and threats to force you in, but they can’t afford to have a revolving door of staff. Are individual people replaceable? Yes, of course, but not when it’s en masse. You want to see corporate culture? How about having half the company demand more flexibility in where they work. ‘Cuz that’s what’s going to happen – the more you try force us into the office, the more some will start forcing your hand the other way.