While many bosses have harbored suspicions about reduced productivity with remote work, leaders like David Solomon, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg have been calling employees back to the office for various reasons. However, one CEO has taken a different stance, insisting that her mandate to boost office attendance is based on preserving her workers’ mental health, rather than solely focusing on their motivation levels.
“This is not about productivity,” Marnie Baker, the CEO and managing director of an Australian bank, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, told staff in a video call obtained by news.com.au.
“I don’t doubt that you can be productive, so it’s not about productivity. This is about our own mental health,” she said, adding she’s witnessed a boost in energy levels, interaction, and innovation of her staff when they are working together in the office.
During the internal meeting about the company’s record earnings, she emphasized that front-line staff have been showing up to work in branches “the whole way through (the pandemic), five days a week.”
“I just want to see more people getting back into our corporate offices,” Baker said. “It is not too much to ask the rest of the organization starts to get back into the office more.”
Staff were reportedly given a list of reasons for returning to the office, including “bump” interactions and ad-hoc conversations, as well as “enhanced wellbeing” which the company claims arises “from greater social interactions and separating our personal and working lives”.
But the notion that ordering employees back to the office would improve their mental health has sparked outrage among the bank’s staff.
“I can unequivocally say my mental health has, in fact, taken a massive downturn at the mandate of having to lose sleep and add two hours per day to my working day, as well as the ‘hot-desking, activity-based working setup’ of the office where it’s a raffle as to who and where you will sit on these days,” an unnamed bank staffer told the Australian news outlet.
“I just feel that in these times, we should be well past anyone commenting or trying to comment towards what’s best for anyone else, particularly around mental health issues. For an MD to not know or empathize with the struggles many, including myself, suffer with just having to force ourselves out of bed to perform our work every single day is appalling.”
Bendigo and Adelaide Bank didn’t immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment, but in a statement to news.com.au, Baker said: “The company understands the way our people work has changed, with many embracing working remotely and the flexibility it provides in creating work-life balance.
“We continue to support a hybrid way of working. Connection and relationships are at the heart of who we are and how we work. Being together and working side-by-side helps us build relationships across the business, create a vibrant culture, and leads to better opportunities for us to collaborate, innovate, and learn.
“Our people have told us having the opportunity to work remotely some of the time enables them to better balance their working and home lives. In line with this, we have asked senior leaders across the business to be in the office the majority of the time and other staff two days a week.”
Is remote working bad for staff’s mental health?
Research has shown that remote working can indeed be an isolated experience (especially for new starters who don’t have established relationships within an organization or those in a single occupancy household) which can have a knock-on effect on mental health.
But in reality, it’s not so black-and-white.
As Dr. Paola Zappa, an organizational behavior professor at UCL previously told Fortune: “We should say that remote work is better than in-office work for some aspects related to health and well-being and worse for others.”
Although remote-induced loneliness can lead to staff feeling a sense of uncertainty and anxiety in their job, the time saved on commuting can also give staff more time to escape their desks.
“Remote workers are known to enjoy – on average – a better work-life balance and a higher level of job satisfaction, which may result in lower levels of work stress and possibly a lower risk of burnout,” Zappa adds.
Ironically, the biggest determining factor in how healthy (or unhealthy) working from home is, depends on how much autonomy and control employees actually have.
A remote worker who fears being reprimanded for leaving their desk or being offline, won’t benefit from the freedom (and thus health benefits) that working from home can provide.
“While evidence relating to the impact of remote working on remote workers’ health is mixed, what my current research suggests is that choice over the working environment and autonomy over how they carry out their work is most likely to lead to positive outcomes,” Dr Amanda Jones, a lecturer in organizational behavior and human resource management at King’s Business School echoed to Fortune.
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