Inside Story

Back to the office: a solution in search of a problem

Managers need to recognise that the best way to dissipate authority is to fail in its exercise

John Quiggin 23 February 2024 1581 words

“The failure of ‘back to the office’ prefigures a major realignment of power relationships at work.” Ken Hawkins/Alamy

Authority is powerful yet intangible. The capacity to give an order and expect it to be obeyed may rest ultimately on a threat to sanction those who disobey but it can rarely survive large-scale disobedience.

The modern era has seen many kinds of traditional authority come under challenge, but until now the “right of managers to manage” has remained largely immune. If anything, the managers’ power has increased as the countervailing power of unions has declined. But the rise of working from home and, more recently, Labor’s right to disconnect legislation pose unprecedented threats to the power of managers over information workers — those employees formerly known as “office workers.”

To see how this might play out, it’s worth considering the decline of another once-powerful authority, the Catholic Church. In the early 1960s, following the development of reliable oral contraception, the leaders of the church had to decide whether to accept the Pill as a permissible way for married couples to plan their families. Pope John XXIII established a pontifical commission on birth control to reconsider Catholic doctrine on this topic.

It was a crucial decision precisely because marriage and sex were the most important areas in which the authority of the Church remained supreme and precise rules could be laid down — and generally enforced — among the faithful.

Most people, after all, have no trouble observing the commandments against murder, and other sins like anger, pride and sloth are very much in the eye of the beholder. But the rules regulating who can marry whom and what kind of sexual behaviour is permissible are precise and demanding, to the point that the term “morals” is commonly taken to imply sexual morals. The official celibacy of priests, who thereby showed even more restraint than was demanded of ordinary Catholics, added to the mystique of clerical power.

By the time the commission reported in 1966 John XXIII had been replaced by Pope Paul VI. The commission concluded that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods they employed. But five of the commission’s sixty-nine members took the opposite view in a minority report.

In the encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI made his fateful rejection of all forms of artificial contraception. As an attempt to exercise and shore up authority it failed completely. The realities of raising large families and dealing with unplanned pregnancies were far removed from the experience of priests and theologians. And the church’s evident demographic motive (the desire for big Catholic families to fill the pews) further undermined the legitimacy of the prohibition.

Previously loyal Catholics ignored Pope Paul’s ruling, in many cases marking their first step away from the Church. Doctrines restricting marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics, including the requirement that children be raised as Catholics, also became little more than formalities commanding at most notional obedience.

The breakdown of clerical authority set the scene for the exposure of clerical child abuse from the 1990s on. Although accusations of this kind had been around for many years, the authority of the church had ensured that critics were silenced or disbelieved.

It is hard to know for sure what would have happened if Pope Paul had chosen differently. The membership and social standing of Protestant denominations, nearly all which accepted contraception, have also declined, though not as much as a Catholic Church that pinned its authority on personal morality. Humanae Vitae’s attempt to exercise papal authority succeeded only in exposing its illusory nature.

In the struggle over working from home and the “freedom to disconnect” we’re seeing something similar happen to the authority of managers.

Following the arrival of Covid-19 in early 2020, working from home went from being a rare indulgence to a general necessity, at least for those whose work could be done with a telephone and a computer. Hardly any time was available for preparation: in mid March, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese were still planning to attend football matches; a week later, Australia was in lockdown.

Offices and schools closed. Workers had to convert their kitchen tables or (if they were lucky) spare bedrooms into workstations using whatever equipment they had available. And, to make things even tougher, parents had to take responsibility for the remote education of their children.

Despite the already extensive evidence of the benefits of remote work, many managers expected chaos and a massive reduction in productivity. But information-based work of all kinds carried on without any obvious interruption. Insurance policies were renewed, bills were issued and paid, newspapers and magazines continued to be published. Meetings, that scourge of modern working life, continued to take place, though now over Zoom.

Once the lockdown phase of the pandemic was over, workers were in no hurry to return to the office. The benefits of shorter commuting times and the flexibility to handle family responsibilities were obvious, while adverse impacts on productivity, if any, were hard to discern.

Sceptics argued that working from home, though fine for current employees, would pose major difficulties for the “onboarding” of new staff. Four years into the new era, though, around half of all workers are in jobs they started after the pandemic began. Far from lamenting the lack of office camaraderie and mentorship, these new hires are among the most resistant to the removal of a working condition they have taken for granted since the start.

Nevertheless, chief executives have issued an almost daily drumbeat of demands for a return to five-day office attendance and threatened dire consequences for those who don’t comply. Although these threats sometimes appear to have an effect, workers generally stop complying. As long as they are still doing their jobs, their immediate managers have little incentive to discipline them, especially as the most capable workers are often the most resistant to close supervision. Three days of office attendance a week has become the new normal for large parts of the workforce, and attempts to change this reality are proving largely fruitless.

The upshot is that attendance rates have barely changed after more than two years of back-to-the-office announcements. The Kastle Systems Back to Work Barometer, a weekly measure of US office attendance as a percentage of February 2020 levels, largely kept within the narrow range of 46 to 50 per cent over the course of 2023.

This fact is finally sinking in. Sandwiched between two pieces about back-to-the-office pushes by diehard employers, the Australian Financial Review recently ran up the white flag with a piece headlined “Return to Office Stalls as Companies Give Up on Five Days a Week.”

This trend, significant in itself, also marks a change in power relations between managers and workers. Behind all the talk about “water cooler conversations” and “synergies,” the real reason for demanding the physical presence of workers is that it makes it easier for managers to exercise authority. The failure of “back to the office” prefigures a major realignment of power relationships at work.

Conversely, the success of working from home in the face of dire predictions undermines one of the key foundations of the “right to manage,” namely the assumption that managers have a better understanding of the organisations they head than do the people who work in them. Despite a vast literature on leadership, the capacity of managers to lead their workers in their preferred direction has proved very limited.

The other side of the remote work debate is the right to disconnect. The same managers who insisted that workers should be physically present at the office in standard working hours (and sometimes longer) also came to expect responses to phone calls and emails at any time of the day or night. The supposed need for an urgent response typically reflected sloppiness on the part of managers incapable of organising their own work schedules to take account of the need for work–life balance.

Once again, managers have attempted to draw a line in the sand. Opposition leader Peter Dutton has backed them, promising to repeal the right to disconnect if the Coalition wins the next election. It’s a striking illustration of the importance of power to the managerial class that Dutton has chosen to fight on this issue while capitulating to the government’s broken promise on the Stage 3 tax cuts, which would have delivered big financial benefits to his strongest supporters.

Can this trend be reversed? The not-so-secret hope is that high unemployment will turn the tables. As Tim Gurner (of “avocado toast” fame) put it, “We need pain in the economy… and employees need to reminded of who is boss.” US tech firms have put that view to the test with large-scale sackings, many focused on remote workers. But the other side of remote work is mobility. Many of those fired in the recent tech layoffs have found new jobs, often also remote.

In the absence of a really deep recession, firms that demand and enforce full-time attendance will find themselves with a limited pool of disgruntled workers dominated by those with limited outside options.

Popular stories — from King Canute’s attempt to turn back the tide (apparently to make fools of obsequious courtiers who suggested he could do it) to Hans Christian Anderson’s naked emperor — have made the point that the best way to dissipate authority is to fail in its exercise. Pope Paul ignored that lesson and the Catholic Church paid the price. Now, it seems, managers are doing the same. •