Higher status, not so much, but perhaps some jealousy from office-workers

In the Swedish radio program with Jon Koldenius & Melissa Gustafsson on 11 June, an exciting conversation about our workplaces after the pandemic took place. The conversation ended with an open question: will those who need to be in the office to do their jobs have a higher or lower status in the future? It is easy to associate positive values such as freedom, responsibility, and a sense of control with remote or hybrid working while being tied to location and 9-5 working hours can feel outdated today. But will the need to be physically present in the office to get the job done affect the status of employees?

From my perspective, the need to be there to get the job done is driven by the conditions that come with the position and influenced by the culture of the organisation. More specifically, it concerns three different aspects – the nature of the work and our activities, the teams, and the staff and leadership. Let’s look at them one by one. There is something to be said about the fact that many people can perform most of their work duties remotely. But, if we assume this applies to everyone, we ever-simplify the diverse requirements of those in different positions. For various reasons, many employees depend on traveling to the office to carry out individual tasks. This could for example be those who work with development or oversees the manufacturing of physical products, or manage sensitive information like code, files, or other documents. For these individuals, traveling to work is required by their work duties. And even before the pandemic, we saw a difference in how much time different occupational groups spend in the office. For example, senior salespeople were less required to be in the office, while specialists were required to be present as they needed to be on hand. So for some influential positions presence was required, while for others it was not. This difference in the need for the presence among high-status people is likely to persist after the pandemic.

Furthermore, regarding the nature of work, good ergonomic tools are needed for working efficiently. To perform many of our work tasks, we often have to manage information from different sources. To do this efficiently and smoothly, we rely on visualisation surfaces – screens. And the more we move away from paper, the more the need for screens increases, since the information that was previously presented on paper now has to be presented digitally. The laptop screen is often too small to work smoothly with things like large Excel sheets or drawing programs. Poor ergonomics will not only make the body tired and make it awkward to constantly zoom in and out or jump between windows, but it also strains our minds since our cognitive systems (our brain) need to process side activities instead of focusing on the main task. Therefore, having a suitable and adjusted workstation for individual tasks are important and many lack the circumstances or do not wish to dedicate space for a desk with the necessary equipment at home – for example those living in crowded conditions or those who wish to separate working life from private life. This aspect is also less related to status.

Shifting our focus to teams, my guess is that working remotely has worked relatively well for established teams during the pandemic. But when new teams are set up or when there are rotations within existing teams, the group needs to get to know each other and find their ways of working. This is facilitated by meeting in person! And this is even more important for teams that work very closely together, such as agile teams. This is another area where I don’t see a connection between status and the need to be at the office.

Finally, employee and leadership are also important when it comes to the possibility of working remotely, but the link to status is not obvious here either. While the general perception among employees seems to be that it has been nice not to have to spend time getting to and from the office and that the home has offered a better opportunity to concentrate, others have preferred the office because it provides them with structure and work-life balance. Employees all think differently and need different conditions to feel, thrive, and perform well! And this also applies to their managers. Not everyone finds it effective to manage only remotely. Remote leadership becomes more difficult with more complex work when the employee is not autonomous in their work – for example when they are newly hired – and when the manager has difficulty communicating, delegating and following up, as well as supporting and seeing their employees remotely.

There is no doubt that there will be an increased level of flexibility in our work-lives going forward after the pandemic, and that it will continue to increase as technological development enable new ways of meeting, collaborating, and managing information. However, the office still fulfils an important function. But it’s not about the amount of time employees spend there. What is important is that employees are given the right conditions to perform their tasks – wherever they are – which in the long run is important for the employee to grow, thrive, and be satisfied with their workplace. Any difference in status concerning where work is performed is subject to these overall social and organisational effects. But certainly, a person’s ability to be flexible concerning their work location may at first glance arouse the envy of those who are more location-bound but wish otherwise.

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