Should you still be working from home?

If you’re a professional consultant in the building industry – that is, an engineer, or an architect, or a project manager, etc – you’ll no doubt have wrestled with the internal (and external) debate about the merits of working from home.

As with almost every other industry, the COVID-19 pandemic was a disrupting event that indelibly changed how businesses operated and how work got done.  Courtesy of lockdowns that were particularly strict and limiting in some states / countries, consulting firms in the building game had to adapt their practices, their workflow, and their modus operandi to keep their clients happy and to keep the wheels of business turning.

As restrictions were lifted, businesses encountered something that perhaps was not initially anticipated when we first all got sent home:  A general resistance from employees not wanting to return to the office – at least, not full-time.  The genie is out of the bottle, and business owners or managers anticipating a return to the pre-COVID workplace arrangements are finding that it’s difficult to push the genie back in.

Hybrid” is the word-of-the-moment, with some businesses now requesting or mandating a minimum number of days for staff to come into the office (anywhere between 1 and 3 days per week, or even per fortnight).  Most commentators believe that a hybrid-style format is the likely workplace format moving forward.  So in a hybrid workplace where you can choose which or how many days you can spend in the office, what do you think is optimal?   What should you be doing?  Taking everything into consideration (and there’s a lot to consider!) what’s best for you and your career?  We’ll explore these questions from a career viewpoint in just a moment, but it’s important to first appreciate the landscape…

An inconvenient truth in these discussions is that your position or opinion on this topic will be strongly flavoured by whether you’re a business owner / high-level manager, or whether you’re an employee.  Your age and number of years of experience in the industry will also strongly flavour your opinion.  Acknowledging that this article will be read by people across a wide age range of, say, 21 to 65, and by those on both sides of the employer/employee fence, forgive us if we make some generalisations over the next few paragraphs.  Not everything presented may apply to your specific situation.  Bear in mind also that the discussion is aimed chiefly at a readership within the consulting professions of the built environment and construction industries.  Some of what follows may not be applicable or relevant to other industries or workplaces.

For the most part, business owners, employers, and managers will generally assert that their practice fires on all cylinders and is optimised when their workforce is in the office.  They’ll have more effective touchpoints and visibility of their staff; workflow is typically more efficient; there are no slow or troublesome VPN’s to work around; training and mentoring is more readily facilitated; office culture is able to flourish; and employees have all their resources at their fingertips…. e.g. printers/scanners, tech, desk space, break-out space, libraries, Workplace Health & Safety measures and insurances in place, possibly better LAN/WiFi facilities, and – perhaps most importantly of all – if you need assistance or a second opinion on something, you can turn immediately to a more senior or experienced colleague in the office, who’ll typically be sitting somewhere nearby.  Let us not forget that business owners are also typically paying rent and overheads to maintain office space; it is hardly optimal or appealing to look across the office and see a bunch of empty desks and unused equipment.

 

Should engineers still be working from home and leaving the office empty?
It’s not good for a business owner to be paying rent on office space and financing the furniture and overheads if no one is using it!

 

On the other side of the ledger, employees wanting to work from home will assert they can get more work done in the day because they’re no longer having to factor in a commute.  If managed carefully, it can lead to a healthier work/life balance; it can more easily facilitate weekday activities outside of work (e.g. gym/sport, family commitments, school drop-off’s/pick-ups, etc), which can have other positives for overall mental health and thus an employee’s overall attitude to work.

The discussion gets troublesome because, in certain aspects, both sides hold valid positions.  The undeniable truth is that, during the lockdowns, the work did get done.  Somehow, we survived; we got our designs, drawings, specifications, tenders, submissions, and documents completed; we got the work out the door; and the buildings got built.  Employees will point to this and ask – with understandable justification – “If we got the work done satisfactorily at home during the lockdowns, why can’t we continue to get the work done satisfactorily from home with the lockdowns lifted?”

One problem here is how we measure “satisfactorily”?  We may have got the work out the door, but did it get done efficiently?   Did the documentation take longer to complete?  Were things optimal?  Was the usual standard of quality/turn-around achieved, or were there compromises and concessions made that were sympathetically accommodated or ignored against the backdrop of the pandemic?  Did new staff get the ideal training and grounding in their firm’s philosophy, culture, and operations?  Did fresh graduates or apprentices/cadets get the ideal grounding and introduction to their profession?  Did staff’s knowledge and skillsets develop and progress, or did they stagnate?  Was the business as profitable?  Those on the employee side of the discussion must acknowledge that not all of these business metrics and company KPI’s are necessarily visible to them.  If you’ve not yet reached a point in your career where you have input or insights into your organisation’s financial, statutory, governance, and HR matters, then – through no fault of your own, merely a function of your age or career trajectory – you’re possibly engaging in the discussion from a limited perspective.

At the end of the day, business owners run a business, and the stakeholders have concerns and considerations that won’t always be evident or apparent to many of their staff.  Employees advocating for working from home more often will be looking at the hours they work, their commute, their work/life balance, and their convenience.  In an era where an increasing number of employees tend to change companies and move around every 2-5 years, their mindset and motivations will be very different to the employer, who has to take a far more long-term and circumspect view of things.  Employers will be looking at maintaining their service and the quality of their brand to their clients; they will have an eye to considerations such as insurance premiums, salaries, leave provisions, rent, long-term strategy, marketing, forward-loading of work, retaining and rewarding high-performing staff, investing in and developing their newer staff, succession planning, and – quite likely – meeting the interest repayments on business loans or other such liabilities.  These responsibilities can be heavy burdens, and one cannot blame employers for wanting their workforce to spend more time in the office….if that is the arrangement they feel best facilitates the business to fire on all cylinders!

It’s clear there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.  Again, both sides have valid and understandable viewpoints.  Let us also acknowledge that the ability to work from home has been a tremendously positive and helpful development for those balancing work and parenthood, and no one wants to see that development go backwards.

But there is another aspect to consider.  As we go to print with this piece in mid-2023, many HR departments across Australia acknowledge it is currently an employees’ market.  Most sectors of the construction industry are still booming; unemployment is extremely low; staff and resources are in high demand; and almost every firm you speak to is desperate for more staff.  Employers have to be flexible and appealing to attract and retain workers; employees currently have the upper hand in negotiations and discussions on workplace arrangements.  Workplaces advocating that their staff return full-time to the office, or simply spend more days in the office, risk losing workers who may subsequently look to switch to a “more flexible” employer.

But how long will this situation last?  Rising inflation and talk of a recession continues to dominate the economic forecasts, and if a slow-down is coming, the landscape will likely change.  Unfortunately, our industry has seen this play out repeatedly in the past:  As the recession bites and work dries up, companies invariably have rounds of redundancies and are forced to shed staff.  Those insistent on staying at home or less willing to come into the office may find they lose their position to someone who’s prepared to be in the office more often.  Those that offer to be in the office full-time may suddenly become the highly-desirable employees.

So with all that as background and to set the landscape, what should you do?  There’s no doubt about what works best for your daily commute and convenience, but what works best for your career?  Below is a series of considerations outlining how and why spending more time in the office can benefit your career:

 

1. Incidental learning.

It is incredible how much technical knowledge and soft skills you pick up just by overhearing other discussions and conversations in the office.  People sitting near you will be tackling a difficult design or problem and you’ll have the opportunity to overhear and learn the tricks, methodologies, and wisdom they employed to solve those problems.  You’ll overhear a more senior member of staff giving a less experienced colleague some sage advice or recommendations.  You’ll observe how the more experienced staff in the office go about their work; how they handle phone calls with difficult clients; how they put out fires; and they’ll be on hand to share their wisdom with you.  You’ll overhear the “think tanks”; you may even be pulled in to participate and contribute.

Opportunities to learn this way happen every minute of every day in a consulting office…but you’ll rob yourself of these opportunities if you choose to work from home and only dial in for the meetings.   Need convincing?  This newspaper article here presents the findings of several studies and research papers that concluded workers present in the office gain 25% more time in career-development activities than those choosing to work from home.  It’s pretty simple:  Stay at home, and there’s a risk you’ll fall behind your peers that choose to head in.

 

2. Visibility.

It’s good to be seen.  If you choose to work from home, you will be – to some extent or another – invisible.  Those who choose to go into the office will be seen; they’ll be there for the “water cooler moments” or kitchen conversations; they’ll say “hi” to the boss each morning; they’ll be around to go to lunch with the team, or join in for drinks at the end of the day; they’ll be in the office for the social activities; they’ll be around for the incidental discussions and developments that take place after the meeting once all the remote people on Zoom or Teams have logged off!

 

Meetings and collaboration in the office
Lots of conversations and additional items get discussed in the office after the WFH crew have logged off from the meeting. You’ll be missing out!

 

The staff who choose to come into the office will be seen to be learning, developing, and progressing; they’ll be seen to be mentoring; they’ll be seen to be helping; they’ll be heard having their conversations with the clients; and they’ll be seen doing their job.  In some cases, these people might be the peers with whom you’re competing for that next promotion or pay increase.  When it comes time for the promotion or for someone to be invited to step up, those who were visible will be front-and-centre in their manager’s field of vision.  As harsh as it sounds, it’s easy to be overlooked or forgotten if you’re perceived as being “rarely around” or “never available”.   Similarly, if there’s a slow-down in the industry and there are redundancies being considered, those that made themselves invisible may likely feature high on the list of who is deemed expendable.  The same newspaper article we linked above (here, if you don’t want to scroll back up) also presents research findings that concluded “when employees have more face-to-face interactions with their managers, they are promoted at a higher rate”.  Whilst you might convince yourself that you can hit all your KPI’s whilst working from home, you should also appreciate that hitting your KPI’s is merely just one factor in the complex world of climbing the corporate ladder.

 

3. Mentoring and networking.

Closely associated with the first point above, mentoring – in all its forms – works best in a face-to-face environment, as does networking.  It can also occur spur-of-the-moment, and in the hustle and bustle of the workplace activities.  Whether you’re being mentored from someone above you, or you’re mentoring someone who’s below you….it’s optimised when you’re together; when you have visibility of one another; and when it’s facilitated in daily, office practice and you’re “on the tools”.  Checking in on a Zoom or Teams call every now and then isn’t as effective.  Also, as much as we don’t like to admit it, there are office politics, and an office workplace invariably forms its cliques, friendship groups, demographic groups, and the like.  Networking is important – you’ll form bonds and friendships, and you’ll make professional connections that can be long-lasting and aid your career 20 years down the track!  Again, networking is something you can’t do as effectively sitting at home by yourself.

 

Face-to-face mentoring
The office provides an environment for face-to-face mentoring; direct input and assistance from the more senior / experienced staff who will be sitting near you…and no one will tell you that your microphone’s on mute!

 

4. Office culture.

An increasing percentage of the workforce now falls into the Gen Y or millennial demographic.   It is a generation that puts high value on authenticity, experiences, being present in the moment, communication, and collaboration.  These are all things that form the backbone of office culture!  Everyone would agree that office culture is crucial to good business and employee satisfaction… but there’s an irony that the generation that is most vocal and critical of office culture when they perceive it to be weak or deficient is the same generation that is the loudest in advocating for workplace flexibility and working from home!   At the end of the day, you can’t have an office culture if there’s no one in the office.

 

5. Job security.

Closely linked with some of the points made above under “visibility”, we are in a rapidly changing workplace with a rapidly changing workforce, and businesses increasingly looking to find an edge, improve their competitiveness, and improve their bottom line.  An increasing number of engineering and architectural companies are turning to off-shore service providers (particularly for BIM/drafting), or outsourcing to cheaper resources.   Some commentators have already suggested that aspects of the construction industry and the consulting professions may go the way of the “gig economy”.  Be careful what you wish for.  The flexibility to not come into the office could well be a two-edged sword when your employer decides that if they never see the employee, the employee might as well be overseas and paid 40% of the Australian salary.

 

6. Pay it forward.

The success, growth, and health of our industry and workplaces in 15-20 years depends on what we do now.  If we want quality workplaces, quality leaders, quality decision-makers, quality work-habits, and quality “knowledge” in our game in years to come, then we need to invest in that now.  If you’ve been in the industry for more than five years, then chances are you received some decent training and mentoring in the first few years of your career.  It behoves you to repay that to the next generation coming through.  Speak to any senior engineer or architect who’s been in the game for a while, and they’ll tell you one of their more satisfying and rewarding roles and activities is passing their wisdom and knowledge on, and then seeing their mentees take the ball and run with it.  But that can be harder to do and achieve if you choose to stay away from the office.  If you’re not prepared to be visible and present for the benefit of the office, your team, and yourself then you cannot be resentful when you’re forgotten.  Or, worse still, found to be expendable when things get tough.

– – – – – – – – – –

As we outlined above, the discussion is a dynamic space, and there are lots of moving parts and influencing factors that will dictate what’s best for you and the business you work for.  It’s a complex balancing act, and what works best for Person A may not for Person B, not to mention at Workplace C or Workplace D.  Ultimately, we must all decide on what’s best for our work, our business, our lifestyle, our job satisfaction, our priorities, and our career.  As professional consultants, most of us enter the construction industry between the ages of 21-25 and presumably leave it around the retirement age of 65.  That’s 40-odd years of continuous learning and development in a career that can be incredibly rewarding, satisfying, giving, and taking.  Speak to most people who’ve worked the majority of their career in the years before the pandemic hit, and they’ll tell you their career’s highlights occurred in the office or because of the office.  There’s probably something in that.  ?

Cheers,
AD

 

PS…if you are keen to keep working from home, or if lockdowns return that force our hand and we’re all sent home again….you might like this video:

UPDATE:  Two days after the above article was posted online, the CEO of the National Australia Bank, Ross McEwan, made the call to mandate that all senior staff must return to the office full-time.  In a subsequent 9News article that you can read here, McEwan actually echoed some of the points made above.  “It’s important for the company and senior staff to work together cohesively, which is best done in person.”  and “….we have also got to make sure our people are trained and developed well.  It’s hard to do when you don’t have a leader who’s beside you…”   The very same article went on to quote IBM’s global chief, Arvind Krishna, who also mandated that his 260,000 employees “return back to the office or face losing career opportunities.”   Finally, the same article quoted CR Commercial Real Estate Group chief, Nicole Duncan, who endorses a return to pre-COVID workplaces because it’s vital to “work together as a community.   The younger generation, the older generation – otherwise we are going to end up with no leaders.”  Notwithstanding that Ms Duncan has a vested interest in seeing workers return to the CBD, it is interesting that these three business leaders expressed similar sentiments and reasoning to the considerations presented above.

UPDATE No. 2:  In July, 2023, The Australian Financial Review published a feature piece on Rob Scott, CEO of Wesfarmers.  The following extract from the article is telling:

To capitalise on these opportunities Scott is a firm believer that staff should be in the corporate HQ at St Georges Terrace in Perth to collaborate. His sentiment echos that of Commonwealth Bank of Australia boss Matt Comyn and National Australia Bank’s Ross McEwan, who also want staff in the office.

Working from home, in Scott’s view, is a “white-collar indulgence”.

The former Olympian adds:  “It’s really important to develop new team members, to develop the skills that our younger and newer members need. You learn a lot more when you’re working alongside other more experienced people.

“Our view of flexible work is that if for whatever personal circumstances, it’s important for you to work from home at a certain time, then we encourage that, we allow it, but at the end of the day, we’re really judged by output and being productive. On many occasions, that means being present in the office.”

By contrast, the insistence on being allowed to work from home two or three days a week is “a very definite definition of being inflexible about work”, says Scott, noting that 90 per cent of Wesfarmers’ 120,000 staff work in retail and cannot work from home.

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