With most companies moving back to a primarily in-office work model as the world shifts into an endemic mode of living, there is a growing discussion about going “back to normal.” However, lacking from the debate is the question I’ve been asking: Why would we ever go back?
The working conditions we once considered normal are now an outdated model for modern workplaces and their workforce. As a result, companies calling workers back to the office full time are being met with resistance and, in some cases, resignation letters. I believe there’s a solution that benefits employers and their teams. But it requires compromise.
When I started my career in corporate finance, shutting down my desktop computer on a Friday afternoon signaled the end of the workweek. I worked my allotted time, completed my assigned tasks, and was free to enjoy two days away from the office. Twenty years later, that has changed.
The creation and adoption of technology in the workplace allowed significant efficiencies and helped people connect in real-time more easily. However, these technological advances often blur the line between work life and home life if overused. First laptops, then blackberries (remember blackberries?), and later smartphones allowed companies to access workers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
So instead of powering down for the weekend, work slipped into your briefcase, backpack, or pocket and went home with you. Soon, work showed up at social engagements, your kid's sporting events, Sunday dinner at nana’s, and anywhere else you got a signal. In the blink of an eye, society forgot that answering the phone–the thing mounted on the kitchen wall–during dinner was considered rude.
Whatever semblance of boundaries workers had pre-pandemic were entirely lost in March 2020. First, zoom meetings and timestamps on messaging software forced workers to remain tethered to their computers during traditional working hours, despite the universal need to navigate a global pandemic's unknowns. Then the lines blurred even further as these tethers held workers to their desks beyond traditional work hours as life and work-life became synonymous.
After more than two years of reinventing how to navigate work and home life, the workforce adapted. But, as workers return to the office full-time, the overlap between work and home–spurred by technology–still exists. Office hours return, but digital leashes and expectations to be always available remain ever-present.
Work culture became the worst of both worlds: stuck at the office and glued to our devices.
But workers aren’t accepting this as their new normal. Instead, the scale has tipped too far in one direction, and workers are taking a stand for themselves and their health.
In 2021, 47 million workers left their jobs. In December alone, that number was 4.3 million. This phenomenon, known as “The Great Resignation,” showcases a mass exit from out-of-touch employers unable to recognize the need for a better overall quality of life, including real boundaries between work life and home life.
Workers are sending corporate America a message: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. People need time away from work to recharge. So today’s workers are looking for companies who share their vision for a modern workplace–companies that prioritize mental and physical health as much as workloads and deadlines.
The solution requires companies to let go of the way we’ve always done things, and explore a new–better–normal that benefits workers and bottom lines. If workers are expected to return to the office, they need their weekends back–real time away from work. Alternatively, if they are expected to be “digitally on call” 24/7, they need true flexibility in their schedule and autonomy in their office hours to accomplish their work and enjoy their lives outside of work.
The correlation between time off and employee productivity is undeniable. Taking time away from work reduces stress, prevents burnout, and improves productivity. Companies that recognize the connection between mental health, employee morale, and productivity have already made this leap. As a result, these companies will retain and hire a talented, loyal workforce.
We are ushering in a new age of work culture. Now is the time for corporate America to embrace using time away from work–traditional and non-traditional, plus paid time off–as the latest, cutting-edge technology to empower employees and promote productivity.
Cover Photo by Nathan Van Egmond on Unsplash.
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