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Going back to the office is delayed (again): continual changes in plans create instability

“We have received at least a dozen messages from the company with different plans to return to the office, changing dates, shifts, bubbles; a very crazy one was even shuffling an outside tent so as not to use the dining room… ”. Macarena works in the marketing department of an industrial multinational and prefers not to use her name to make her feelings clear: “The bosses are determined to return, they did not prepare for a scenario in the that this does not end and they have been improvising ”. After a long season since the summer, 100% in person, with the peak of infections, his office has returned to alternate weeks remotely. “I continue as if it were every day, paying after school, without signing up for Pilates … The worst thing is not knowing how long the new plan that they have come up with will last,” says this Sevillian with a tired tone. The last email Esteban received before Christmas, an engineer at an energy company whose headquarters work with a capacity of 50% (maximum three days remotely) “was super confusing.” “The rumor mill is that they have closed a plant due to an outbreak, and the mail implied that if you wanted, you could go home under your conscience … We know that bosses like that go. I don't care if I go or not, but it's all a bit crazy. ”

For many workers, the“ now yes, now no ”of presence has become a sword Damocles hanging over their routines. “In the short term there was no choice but to improvise plans for return, another thing is to continue improvising …”, says Alfonso Sauquet, professor in the Department of People and Organization Management at ESADE. “These lurching increase uncertainty and end up exposing managers; Those emails become something to be ironic about, no one believes them anymore ”. The mistake, he says, has been to decide that the return could have a specific day “when that does not depend on anyone”: “To affirm is not to lead, it seems that they name the certainty of a date to see if it happens; If we pray, it still rains. ”

January 10, 2022 is the last Monday announced that it has not rained. The increase in infections due to the omicron variant altered the plans of many companies this Christmas, as it had already happened in previous waves. Telefónica, Vodafone, Orange, BBVA, Banco Santander, Mapfre, Google or the Tax Agency have announced adjustments to their strategies, again promoting teleworking, establishing continuous days (to avoid dining rooms), reducing their presence ratios, leaving more margin to voluntariness, or delaying the return date. Again. Four days, two weeks, a month. Depending on the optimism of the company. According to a survey by the consulting firm Gartner in the United States, 44% of companies have altered their plans due to the advance of the sixth wave. Even the most reluctant executives to telecommute, like James Gorman, Morgan Stanley's chief executive officer – who in the summer threatened to have “another kind of conversation” with those who didn't want to hit the carpet again in September – have backed down. “I was wrong”, he admitted a few weeks ago in an interview about his prediction: “Who knows if after the omicron we will have pi, theta and epsilon, or if we will run out of letters of the alphabet ”

“ Teleworking is here to stay ”is the most repeated mantra since the virus forcibly demonstrated that it was possible, but statistics show that inertia when cases drop is to return to the presence. In 2021, the percentage of remote workers fell from 11.2% in the first quarter of 2021, to 8% in the third (half that in the first lockdown and double that before the pandemic, according to the INE).

In the process, human resources departments have been adjusting to the risk of contagions, and communicating their strategies with more or less success. “The important thing is to keep people informed so as not to drive them crazy, anticipate what may happen and try not to take too many steps back,” says Enagás Mar Cuenca's Health and Safety management. In his company, he explains, they were “technologically prepared” because they already teleworked one day a week before the pandemic. Now there are two remote days, “although it is possible that teleworking is spread voluntarily due to the January infections.”

For Susana Marcos, from the Peoplematters consultancy, it is understandable that companies go modulating their plans, “yes, anticipating as much as possible.” We can already foresee, for example, he says, that after the holidays the cases increase. “In this sense, it is not such a bad thing to give specific dates,” says the expert; provided that it is clearly stated that they are open to the evolution of the pandemic: “People need some certainty, many employees are eager to return, leaving has a great cost in training processes, teamwork and mental health on the part staff that may feel detached or depressed at home. ”

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“The companies that have best dealt with this are those that have offered long and flexible return periods,” says Sauquet, “and instead of massive mails with very specific plans that later have been abandoned, have created more porous communication environments with their staff, generating even greater complicity than before ”. The idea, he explains, is to honestly admit “we are in the same boat, but we don't know when, or how, it will come to fruition.” The teacher believes that it is “an opportunity for a less rigid and strategic type of leadership.”

Why such a rush to get them back? You have to listen to the employees instead of insisting that the Tetris of the return works at all costs

Mireia de las Heras, professor at IESE Business School

“In the umpteenth turn or not turn, turns only exhaust the staff ”, says Mireia de las Heras, professor at IESE Business School in the Department of People Management in Organizations. He proposes that the return date does not depend so much on the virus as on the lives of the employees. “You have to give a reasonable time for people to readjust their routines, in Spain it would be the academic year, so they know whether or not they can take the children out of the dining room, hire care services, plan subscriptions or rentals …”. And he adds another substantive question: “Why are they in such a hurry to get them back? We have asked them for a superhuman effort to totally alter their lives and now it seems that we are not believing, we must listen to the employees instead of insisting that the Tetris of the return works at all costs. But we managers like to have our people in their jobs. This is not so much a matter of productivity as of the safety of our leaders. ”

Ramona Pineros López, who has negotiated teleworking agreements in the telecommunications sector from CC OO, navigates the gap that opens between managers and employees. It coincides, in line with international polls, that although both are committed to hybrid models, some press for more face-to-face time and others want more remote time. “And as the months go by, companies are more and more impatient to come back.” The causes are multiple, from the culture of face-to-faceism to the new law that regulates teleworking and entails an additional cost for companies. “Productivity has not been affected, but it is not just that they like to send live”, he jokes, “teleworking affects the tuning of the equipment, occupational, physical and psychological health … In addition, They are right in that they carry all the aesthetic weight of the situation, in bars or shopping centers there are not as many security measures as in offices; Neither society nor the rulers, who do not get wet, are required so much ”. Although “there is still a long way to go” to negotiate, says the union member, “teleworking has become a right, it can no longer be a prize at will.”

“Presence depends on the day, the campaign, the client, what your direct boss says … It's a lottery, so there is no way to get organized ”

Gabriela, telemarketer

That is exactly how Gabriela feels, who now telework, except when she is called, from one day to the next, to go to the “ platform ”, as it refers to the contact centers of the multinational Konecta. “Making you go is a punishment, if one week you do not meet the objectives of call time, recalls or satisfaction, they force you to go to 'motivate yourself'. They say that this is how you infect team spirit, but what you try to do is do your best so as not to get infected with the other, ”he says. Since the summer “it has been a now-come game, not now”: “It depends on the day, the campaign, the client, what your direct boss says … It's a lottery, so there is no way to organize”, he assures. A Konecta spokesperson explains that they are now around 20% of face-to-face work, after reducing it by 60% -40% as a result of the omicron. “Our priority is sanitary measures in the work centers, presence depends on the nature of the campaigns and the demands of the clients. A balance must be found between the well-being of the workforce and the operation of a business that maintains 20,000 jobs in Spain. Human resources is in constant communication with employees and this work requires flexibility, something that in markets such as Latin America is completely normalized ”, he explains. For Gabriela, this flexibility means that she cannot stop paying for her two children's extracurricular fees in case they make her go, but neither can she remove the internet from home in case she has to telework: “In confinement, total telework was not ideal, but I could organize myself better with care; And before the pandemic, 100% face-to-face, I knew what to expect, but with this uncertainty now, there are months that I don't know if it pays to buy a monthly transport pass or one of 12 trips, and that, when you charge 930 euros, it matters. I feel like I have the worst of both worlds. ”

That is exactly the phrase that Esteban, the engineer, uses from a radically different life situation. “I do not have children and my salary is very good, going to the office or not does not affect my routines … But when I go I feel that 'I telework in person', because there are no physical or external meetings, not even half of my mates; And, as I do not telework continuously, I cannot make long-term plans, such as moving to the country. ”

Roberto Carboni, an employee of an IBM subsidiary, is one of the lucky ones to that the company has not changed its plans in two years of the pandemic. He has been telecommuting since March 2020. “What happens,” he says, paraphrasing John Lennon, “is that while companies make plans to return to the office or not, life passes.” He has taken the children out of the dining room, “and so many other details.” Return? “It's going to be hard, because, like it or not, we've gotten used to being at home.”

“This is not telecommuting, it is a trick”

In alternate weeks in which She teleworks, Macarena is not paid for internet, but they do take away the extra transportation and food. “No internet, no electricity, no heating,” says Gabriela, a telemarketer. “And my flat is what it is, so I strain my eyes because it doesn't have adequate light and my back hurts because I spend seven hours in the dining room chair.” She also feels that they let her work remotely when the company wants it, not when she needs it. “This is not telecommuting, it is a fix,” he says.

To stop being it, unions and companies negotiate agreements around the new teleworking law, which entails conditions for those who work more than 30% of the time and associated costs, but which does not apply when the workforce is sent home due to the pandemic . Its progress is slow. So far – it came into force in the summer – clauses have only been introduced in 4% of the agreements. “Reality showed that technically companies can work remotely, but conceptually they are not so willing, “says Ramona Pinero López, secretary of CC OO in the telecommunications sector, where agreements have been reached that include ergonomic chairs and connectivity grants. “They are the most used to managing work remotely, others will follow,” says the union member.

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