The moment we’ve hoped for when we’d have all the answers about the return to work still hasn’t happened. But have you ever wondered if we’ve been asking the right questions about returning to work?

Time passes. Uncertainty doesn't.

Back in the summer, I wrote about the return to work. Ten months later, I’m taking another look at this issue that’s top of mind for so many of us. We’ve seen some people go back to work in varying capacities. But overall, there are still so many unanswered questions. It can feel like we’re in an endless loop of recurring concerns influencing return-to-work decisions (or lack of decisions).

Even as parts of the world move to the endemic phase of the virus, there’s still so much uncertainty. There are questions about variants, seasonality, vaccination access and availability—and more. And the Omicron surge reminded us of what happens when we let our guard down. I can only imagine what it’s like to try to codify return-to-work policies in this environment.

A major expectations mismatch

Despite this uncertainty, there are fundamentals about the return to work that are abundantly clear. There’s an expectations mismatch between leadership and the workforce when it comes to how they think about—and what they want—from returning to work. And even whether they want to do it at all.

A big part of this expectation gap is grounded in generational differences. A full 90% of GenZ and Millennials—who make up most of the workforce—have zero interest in going back to the office. For them, there is no actual, walk-through-the-front-door return to work moment. And don’t forget, these are the people who make up the future public service workforce.

Compare this workforce dynamic to common attitudes among supervisors and executive-level staff. Many of these leaders have a strong desire to go back to the way things were—five days a week in the office, face-to-face meetings and water cooler chats. After all, this is how they grew up in their careers, and working and managing people remotely takes muscle they haven’t built and trained.

A societal shift of epic proportions

There’s an issue much bigger than the questions these groups are asking themselves. The push for remote work and flexible working arrangements is no longer about preserving the health of the workforce. It’s not a moment in time. It’s a moment for all time because we’re experiencing a profound societal shift.

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The push for remote work and flexible working arrangements is no longer about preserving the health of the workforce. It’s not a moment in time. It’s a moment for all time.

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Technologies have made remote working arrangements possible and “normal” that we couldn’t have imagined even just a few years ago. Such technologies will only get more advanced, and I expect that to happen fairly quickly given the powerful combination of demand and innovation in this space.

Breakthrough virtual working experiences are on the horizon. Take the metaverse. We recently published the Accenture Technology Vision 2022, which is all about the metaverse continuum. This continuum is a spectrum of digitally enhanced worlds, realities and business models. It supports collaboration in virtual spaces, augmented physical places and a blend of both. We also have our own metaverse, the Nth Floor, that hosts new hire orientations and provides immersive learning and virtual meet-ups for our people.

Forward to work. Not back to work.

I’m not suggesting that we’ll be meeting in the metaverse tomorrow. But it will happen. Leaders who don’t acknowledge that the return to work is really about the reinvention of work may well find themselves struggling when it comes to recruiting top talent. This possibility is a very real concern for public service organizations given the silver tsunami occurring in this sector.

There are no easy answers to all of this, and the impacts of fully remote work are both positive and negative. On the positive side, working remotely supports work/life balance and sustainability, among other things. On the negative side, I don’t think we’ve solved for how to create a culture of continuity and stickiness when people are not physically together, and I worry about the impact of isolation.

What I do know is this. Public-service organizations cannot keep addressing return to work issues with “throw it on the wall and see what sticks” approaches. Despite all the uncertainty of the foreseeable future, it’s time to work through how to attract talent and service constituents with a very different coverage model. I encourage these conversations to start without delay.

Looking into the crystal ball

If I had a crystal ball, I would still say that hybrid work models will rise to the top, and that the digital-born workforce will have to make some concessions for this.

But hybrid models can’t be ad hoc anymore. Public service organizations should think strategically about how the time in the physical office is spent so that everyone gets what they want and need. For example, having employees on the same teams, or on teams that work together, work in the office on the same days could create valuable connections and a shared sense of belonging.

There’s also the issue of organizational culture. Without the social fabric of “stickiness” that comes from being physically together in the office at least some of the time, developing and fostering culture could be at risk. I worry too that employees could become a collection of “free agents” with no real ties to the organization, or each other. This is why hybrid is key for the betterment of organizations, people, culture and society.

So how will your organization reinvent work?

Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and stay tuned for upcoming blogs.

Other blogs from Ryan:

This content is provided for general information purposes and is not intended to be used in place of consultation with our professional advisors. This document refers to marks owned by third parties. All such third-party marks are the property of their respective owners. No sponsorship, endorsement or approval of this content by the owners of such marks is intended, expressed or implied.

Ryan R. Gaetz

Managing Director – Consulting, Accenture Workday Education & Government​ Lead

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