Global surveys show that employees remain reluctant to return to working in an office five days a week. However, in Asia, a nuanced picture has emerged. Cultural and customer perspectives, workforce demographics, and housing restrictions are key factors helping workers in Asia feel more comfortable coming back to the office. Even so, not all employees across Asia feel the same about returning.
At a recent Asia CEO Forum briefing, one member commented, ‘In Shanghai, people generally are happy to come back to the office for various reasons, including finding good ways to connect with each other. But in Singapore, maybe not. All are part of “Asian cultures” but have different behaviours.’
This Insight is informed by key points of discussion at the briefing and members' comments about how they are managing the transition across Asia Pacific.
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+ Asia Pacific is ‘ahead of the curve’ in employees returning to work, but employers still face
challenges getting younger employees back to the office full-time.
+ Cultural and customer perspectives, workforce demographics, and housing restrictions are the primary reasons why employees in Asia are less reluctant to return to the office.
+ Because of the rapid advent of AI, younger employees who are reluctant to return to the office may be risking their long-term career prospects.
+ Employees in some countries quickly returned to the office (e.g., China, Korea, and Japan), while staff in other countries have been more reluctant (e.g., Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore).
+ Getting employees back to the office requires more than simple enticements; a well-considered plan is necessary to ensure permanent behavioural change.
+ A direct line can be drawn between not having leaders in the office and nobody else coming in.
+ Corporate leaders need to lead by example in coming to the office, know why and when people need to come into the office, and effectively communicate the reasons to their staff.
+ Flexibility is the key to transitioning successfully to the post-pandemic workplace. People should be entrusted to do their jobs, whether remotely or in the office.
Asia Pacific is ‘ahead of the curve’ in employees returning to work. According to one survey, 75% of employees in Asia are going back to work and feel comfortable doing so, especially to offices with attractive environments and good locations. But this doesn’t mean that all employees are happy being in the office five days a week.
Surveys in recent months have shown that employees remain reluctant to return to working in an office five days a week and want flexibility, if they come back at all. One global survey found that nearly two-thirds of workers don’t want to be in an office full-time. During the pandemic, many people found that they could work remotely and still be successful in doing their jobs. More than onethird said that if employers weren’t going to offer hybrid or remote options, they would leave and find something else to do.
Gen Z and millennials are more likely to move on
Many who would opt to quit rather than return to the office full time are among younger generations who are unwilling to change their lifestyles for their jobs. Most GenZs and millennials have not been in the office during the past three years. Consequently, they have not formed lasting bonds with colleagues and supervisors. The employer’s interaction with these younger employees often is more transactional in nature than with longer tenured employees.
Younger employees often think that this is their ‘half decade in the sun.’ They think they can demand pay rises and flexible working conditions, including working from home, ice cream, music, and many other perks.
‘But guess what’s coming. A lot of these jobs are likely to be automated. AI doesn’t need perks. Many people who think that they’re in a good negotiating position, but who are inexperienced, may find their roles being replaced.’
Getting staff back to the office
Cultural and customer perspectives, workforce demographics, and housing restrictions are key factors helping people in Asia feel more comfortable coming back to the office. In Japan and Korea, most staff are in the office five days a week. Yet not all employees across Asia feel the same about returning to the office full-time.
‘In Shanghai, people generally are happy to come back to the office for various reasons, including finding good ways to connect. But in Singapore, maybe not. All are part of “Asian cultures” but have different behaviours.’
While employees in many Asian countries readily return to the office full-time, staff in Australia and New Zealand may be more resistant.
‘Particularly in Australia and New Zealand, we’re having problems getting people to come into the office, even just two days a week. Like a lot of companies, we’ve mandated Tuesdays and Thursdays that employees should be in the office. I’ve tried doing “pizza quarters” and town halls bringing everyone in, but they’ve been unsuccessful.’
Companies are deploying tactics to tempt their staff to spend more time in the office.
‘Some firms are enticing employees to return by holding concerts or other entertainment and offering attractive incentives such as lunches, happy hours, or ice cream socials.’
Such appeals may work in certain instances, but the big learning is that company leaders must be purposeful about it. It can’t be something that happens just now and again.
‘It’s a social engagement process for leaders. This means being purposeful, thoughtful, and well-organised about why people should come in. They know that Tuesdays are cultural connection days, and that Wednesdays are when they get their meetings with clients. There is a cadence to the reasons to be back in; it’s not chaotic.’
Follow the leader
A direct line can be drawn between not having leaders in and nobody else coming in. Most people think that if the leader isn’t going to be in the office, they’re not either.
The first step for some companies was to get senior managers back into the office, say for three days a week. They organised meetings for their employees, who often responded by returning, since they saw that the managers were already there. So, it was more of a ‘natural progression’ to come back.
Many large Asian companies have brought their people back to their offices. It’s ‘follow the leader’; if the senior executives are in the office and call a meeting, their staff must be there. The approach is getting the managers in at least three days a week and their subordinates are following.
‘Beginning the day that Covid restrictions ended, I tried coming to the office five days a week. Without saying anything, people started to notice and returned to the office. Today, at least 70-75% of my team come to the office four days a week.’
Getting the physical environment right
Another dimension that draws employees back to the office is the physical environment. Buildings are being redesigned for flex and hybrid working. This often means that the buildings can be segmented into sections. Facility managers can close large parts of a building when they are not needed and concentrate facilities on selected floors. This concept of an elastic building will take hold – together with a more localised footprint for large organisations.
‘We continue to be in this open environment in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Our employees enjoy it, with the opportunity to be more collaborative and engaging in a relaxed atmosphere while they’re working.’
During the pandemic, companies found that they could decrease costs significantly by reducing real estate and their footprint. But when space has been reduced by 50%, even a reduced number of staff can no longer fit into the office. Some moved part of their operations to shared offices like Regus or WeWork.
‘During Covid, we shrunk our office footprint because we could do our jobs remotely. We have reduced our office space in Hong Kong by 50%. We’re also closing our smaller offices and moving employees into shared office spaces.’
The carrot works better than the stick
Some companies, such as financial services, have been heavy-handed with employees. The mandate was ‘back to work, or else.’ This generally hasn’t played well. At a large North American bank, for example, many employees left the bank with a ‘bad taste in their mouth’ toward senior management after receiving this mandate.
Research indicates that people don’t want to be told when to come back in. They benefit from being in the office, but it is better if managers don’t insist that they be there; it’s a matter of persuasion.
‘I don’t know how we can better try to entice or attract our staff to the office. I think that there may not be any return at all. When they come back, they are quite different. We can bring them physically but sometimes cannot bring them emotionally or get them to commit to the company. We need to offer them something new or different, more interesting, and more purposeful.’
One professional services firm employs mostly knowledge workers, who could work from anywhere. Nevertheless, the company expects staff to be in the office more than two days a week. Employees need to learn from their peers and work alongside their leaders if they are to be in the running for the next generation of leadership. This can only be done through their physical presence in the office.
In any case, employers need to be flexible with their employees. There will be times when employees are going through difficulties, whether it’s Covid or personal issues. Flexibility is key to the transition to a post-pandemic workplace.
‘We’re self-empowered. People have their objectives; they know what they need to do. We don’t have a lot of people who are office-bound, since we’re a sales and marketing arm of the company. Most of our sales staff don’t have to come into the office, but their support staff do.’
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