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Why the return-to-office wave is a wake-up call for businesses

Nurrul Abdul Majid and Woon Wu Soong
Nurrul Abdul Majid and Woon Wu Soong • 5 min read
Why the return-to-office wave is a wake-up call for businesses
To effectively address the RTO trend, organisations must reassess the present problem and measure up to future scenarios. Photo: Unsplash
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The return-to-office (RTO) wave can be described as sluggish, bumpy, and awkward at best. Yet, instead of asking the right questions, leaders in many companies have been preoccupied with the problem at face value: The empty office.

Discussions typically revolve around costs and the return on investment, leading many to jump the gun to permanently reduce their office footprint or push through sweeping mandates as a short-term solution.

Make or break

The RTO is not a one-size-fits-all exercise nor a straightforward undertaking across different countries within Asia Pacific. In Singapore, remote working remains a foremost preference among the workforce, even if some employers are determined to revert to the initial working ways.

It is a contentious topic to the extent that a new government-backed Tripartite Working Group has been formed in Singapore to set the tone and pave a new direction regarding flexible working arrangements starting in 2024.

As more companies look to digital transformation upon realising that future-proofed workplaces are becoming increasingly critical, we have made some general observations over the last year of the RTO journey.

See also: What does it mean for every company to be an AI company?

Many RTO programmes face challenges in the design, communication, and rollout to maintain hybrid elements to appear flexible, often encountering a wall of negative employee sentiment. This includes feelings of being forced, mandated, and having choices taken away. As a result, trends like quiet quitting, loud labourers, bare minimum Mondays, grumpy stayers, and — most recently — coffee badging have emerged, deeming these exercises ineffective.

The RTO journey has been marked by a significant disconnect between the desires of employers and the preferences of their workforce.

The right questions

See also: Achieving true digital transformation: It’s not the tools, it’s the people

What will make employees, who are now used to the time- and money-saving benefits of work-from-home, want to make frequent office pilgrimages?

In the last year or so, we note that multiple RTO initiatives have rolled out across different sectors, but few have addressed the fundamental question above and have come to expect the old ways of working and pre-pandemic dynamics and policies to continue.

Incentivising employees to return to the office helps with understanding their daily work routines — from working and collaborating in teams to what they need or enjoy in the office and beyond.

For employers and decision-makers, a good starting point would be to audit and scenario-plan around processes, technology and systems, as well as socialisation that considers the present and future.

New culture

Productivity and flexibility are key narratives these days. The reflection and audit that needs to be done here is not just about looking into outdated ways of working but also probing into whether systemic processes are forming complex bureaucracies that employees find a hindrance to doing their jobs. How can the office environment and RTO policies address this in a way that working from home cannot?

At Orange Business, we have started embracing a new ‘One Orange Business’ model across our international regions to build a new culture for working together. It is a model that places the employee experience and collective performance at the core.

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Developing meaningful employee experience anchored to human needs is part and parcel of prioritising the return experience. We call this framework “Hybrid Ways of Working”, which offers our employees and the company a means of working more productively and flexibly, with an app that helps them manage their arrangements in a direct and accessible approach.

Technology and systems

Are we technologically and humanly prepared to support our employees and future hires with what the future may have in store, with predictive scenario planning for new changes that may take place? For example, how can the office provide on-site technologies that stimulate better collaboration between different generations of workers?

In co-creating workplace decisions, we also want to be asking ourselves how tech is helping employers foster a collaborative atmosphere where they make decisions with their employees to instil a sense of ownership and empowerment.

Are our policy, physical space, and technology teams set up to be able to co-solve the RTO and create a future-proofed workplace? Do these three business functions even have a working relationship?

Socialisation for future-orientation

While we come to learn and adjust to the present dynamics, are we thinking enough about the future? These include investigating opportunities, addressing criticalities, the sustainability of work systems that can define the future, supporting inclusion and collaboration with growth and autonomy, and so on.

We can also self-appraise with future-oriented experimentation and testing. Orange Business, for example, is one of the organisations worldwide to participate in the Microsoft 365 Copilot Early Access Programme. Microsoft 365 Copilot combines the power of Large Language Models with data in the Microsoft Graph — such as calendars, emails, chats, documents, and meetings — and the Microsoft 365 apps to help users create content faster and better.

This new tool will enable us to save time on low or moderate-value-added tasks, freeing up time for tasks where humans excel, identified through our future casting. Creativity, listening, forming convictions, taking care of customers, imagining new services, and reacting to new situations are just a few examples of what will be possible because other tasks will be accelerated and optimised by Microsoft 365 Copilot.

Sustainability and far-sightedness

Any leader hoping things will get “back to normal” will be disappointed because the workplace is fundamentally different now. Organisations, especially those whose mindsets and beliefs have not shifted with the present, risk not only being irrelevant but also unable to embrace similar future situations.

The cautionary lessons of the RTO wave should spur deep reflection and discovery by far-sighted leaders to engage gears into a bold new future. Asking the right questions, being highly self-aware, and looking ahead to invest in future-oriented, sustainable, and secure work systems will carry organisations and employees into the next decade and more.

Nurrul Abdul Majid is the head of HR Asean, Japan and Korea, and Woon Wu Soong is the head of Collaboration for Apac at Orange Business

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