Warning: If You Use This Phrase, Your WFH Culture is Doomed!

Early in this pandemic, organisations scrambled to allow their office staff to work from home (WFH). As we’re seeing restrictions being eased in some places, organisations are gradually moving their staff back to the office.

I’m noticing some consulting groups, government departments, and other advisers writing reports about how to make this transition safe. That’s good, but there’s a worrying trend in some of the language they use. Here’s a sample of headlines from some of these reports:

Do you see the problem?

Obviously, their intent is to help organisations plan a safe and responsible transition. That’s good.

But the real problem is using the phrase “the workplace” to refer to the office.

No, the office is not the workplace – it just happens to be one possible workplace. It might be the old default workplace, and it might even be the most likely workplace for your team in the future. But please, please, please don’t call it the workplace.

If you use that language, you’re saying every other workplace is inferior.

If you need a plan for returning to the office, fair enough – that’s a sensible and responsible thing to do. But don’t call it “returning to the workplace” if you really mean “returning to the office“!

For decades, long before this pandemic, thousands of organisations with office workers have had staff successfully working away from the office. It’s not just a temporary measure and it doesn’t make them second-class citizens.

For example, Microsoft encourages their employees in the USA to work from co-working spaces because it helps them engage and interact with people from other industries. As Matt Donovan, general manager of Microsoft Office marketing, said:

“Keeping our teams fresh and connected where great ideas happen in the marketplace can only make them better.”

That’s a powerful benefit, but you wouldn’t think of it if you’re thinking working remotely means working from home.

More recently, in July, global industrial giant Siemens announced it will allow employees to work from wherever they want for two or three days a week. This applies to all its 140,000 employees in 43 countries around the world. As Deputy CEO, Roland Busch, said:

“We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results.”

And Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other tech companies have already announced permanent WFH options for their employees.

Your language matters!

If you refer to people working from home as “remote workers” or “virtual workers”, or say “return to the workplace” instead of “return to the office”, you reinforce the idea that the office is the most important workplace, and everywhere else (and, by extension, everybody else) is less important.

Instead, treat all workplaces as potentially equal – whether it’s the office, home, co-working space, airline lounge, or self-driving car:

It might seem like only a small change, but it will make a big difference to your mindset. When you expand your thinking beyond just the office and home, you open up exciting new possibilities, such as more flexible working hours, better work-life integration, creating more fluid teams, tapping into ad hoc expertise, and more.


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