No More Mr. Remote Guy

More firms are putting a foot down on the remote work free-for-all, requiring in-person appearances.

A high-paying client calls to say he’ll be in town tomorrow and would like to come meet the team. The manager panics, scrambling to extract the team lead from her country house, the client liaison from the South of France, and Jack … where does Jack even work from these days?

This is the nightmare situation facing millions of managers around the world: How can they run teams that are scattered far and wide? This week, firms began gently laying down the law. One global professional services company announced that remote workers must appear in-office for at least three days per month; another global consumer products company mandated that workers appear in-office for meetings on 24 hours’ notice.

These employers are navigating a perilously fine line between employee flexibility and risk to the business. “It’s very critical to make sure that high-potential employees are close by and available for critical work,” says Peter Bresser, business development director for Korn Ferry, “but if you tell them that they have to be in the office day-to-day, you’ll lose the employees.”

This comes on the heels of a pandemic that sent employees packing: parents relocated to the suburbs; singles jumped at the chance to telecommute from Prague or Miami; caregivers moved into mom’s house. This summer, a small number of global firms insisted on back-to-work-as-usual. Now others are attempting more nuanced approaches, part of a widespread reckoning as firms negotiate office expectations.

These boundaries are essential for company functioning, says Bresser. Some business activities will always be done best (and sometimes only) in person, like client strategy meetings, emergency specialist consults, and production problem-solving, not to mention sales. “It’s always good to sell when you’re sitting face-to-face, especially if you need experts to come in and talk about your product or service,” he says.

These emerging global policies add two defining features to hybrid work: maximum employee flexibility combined with geographic tethering, says John Atherton, a London-based senior client partner for Korn Ferry. Employees may not realize it, he says, but the policies protect their roles. If everyone works far away, he says, why not employ people closer?

Elise Freedman, Korn Ferry’s organizational strategy and workforce transformation practice leader, says that how the policy is communicated is as important as the policy itself. She encourages firms to first articulate what the company is trying to achieve, such as facilitating innovation or supporting strong client relationships. Next, firms need to clearly explain expectations and rules, as well as guidelines on who pays for travel expenses like airfare, hotel, and food. “I’d encourage them to spell things out and be very reasonable in terms of time,” she says, pointing out that short-notice international flights can be pricey and current international COVID test requirements can stress timelines.

This is not the moment to feign expertise, says Juan Pablo González, sector leader for professional services at Korn Ferry. “Make it clear that no one has answers here and that the organization is trying to make the best decisions it can, not to punish people but to facilitate their work,” he says. Given the unchartered territories ahead, executives can help the policies effectively trickle down by emphasizing to managers the principles behind the policy, which will help them make future decisions that are philosophically aligned. “If you can help people understand how the organization thinks about it, managers can make decisions in more ambiguous situations,” he says.

Once the policy is announced, Bresser suggests working with employees to define when each needs to be present. “This all has to be targeted to specific types of workers, because otherwise it doesn’t make sense. There’s no reason for most of your positions to be on-site,” he says. Managers can accomplish this one-on-one with each employee, defining their individual purpose and then, by extension, when and where each is physically needed to deliver that purpose.