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Competitive advantage

In the post-pandemic world, employers can differentiate their brands through flexible work policies, says Dr Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Woman with disabilities doing a virtual business meeting at home. Partner in soft focus sitting in the background.
Thomas Roulet.
Dr Thomas Roulet

By Dr Thomas Roulet

Google just announced it would reduce the salaries of remote workers. In the meantime, civil servants in the UK might have to take a pay cut if they refuse to come back to the office on a permanent basis. One of the reasons invoked is that employees will be able to cut their commute. But is the gain to employees really worth sacrificing a tangible part of their salary?

Many of those employers’ moves are motivated by two illusions. The first preconceived idea is that employers will be in a strong bargaining position with their employees and potential applicants for the foreseeable future. This illusion relies on firms’ impression that, as government support to firms progressively vanish, jobs will be scarce. The reality is that many positions remain unfilled with a positive impact on salaries. For rare and valuable skills, employees are not ready to settle for subpar work conditions.

The second illusion is that some organisations think all workers should absolutely be back in the office full time. The CEO of Goldman Sachs said remote work is an aberration. Investment banks are worried about their ability to distribute work, and an eroding organisational culture that would traditionally contribute to motivating its employees and attract quality applicants.

Now that workers and managers have got a taste of working from home, and simply made it work, it is not possible to travel back in time as if the COVID-19 pandemic had never existed. They are unlikely to swallow a bitter pill that gives them more fragile work conditions than before the crisis.

For all these reasons, the above-mentioned employers are approaching the future of work the wrong way. Instead of retrofitting their model of the past into this new post-pandemic reality, they need to create new norms of work and reshape work interactions and the role of their offices (if they plan to have any!). This new workplace strategy can be the basis of a competitive advantage.

Firms should consider the following factors as they decide why they need an office in this new world of work: Do they want to break down social isolation? Enable clearer social interactions in a face-to-face setting? Maintain organisational culture? Get people to brainstorm complex issues and collaborate across silos? On this basis, options for flexible work can be designed – options that maximise the use of physical interactions and justifies it to employees, while offering them a degree of freedom.

Employers’ brand will be heavily scrutinised for the approach they will take in the coming months. For those who differentiate themselves with innovative flexible policy, as BNP Paribas is doing, in contrast with its industry competitors, there is an opportunity to poach the best employees from competitors, and attract talented newcomers, with the necessary skills for the upcoming uncertainty.

Dr Thomas Roulet is the University Senior Lecturer in Organisation Theory & Deputy Director of the MBA Programme at Cambridge Judge Business School, a Fellow of Girton College, and Bye-Fellow of King’s College, University of Cambridge.