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March 2, 2022

OPINION: If you want to grow your career, go back to the office

On Tuesday, the work-from-home order lifted and now the roughly 600,000 Albertans still working mostly from home will have new options facing them. I’m here to tell you if you want to grow your career, head back to the office.

There’s a saying in business, there are many things you can do to get your star to rise that take no special skill: being on time, dressing for the job, positive body language, bringing energy and attitude, being open to feedback, being prepared. Well, now there is another one you can add to that list: enthusiastically returning to the office.

“Why?” you might ask. The pandemic has proven that we can accomplish a lot working remotely, much more than we thought, much more productively. That’s great. But productive remote work alone will not provide all the nourishment a growing career needs.

The chat by the coffee machine. Noticing people are working late on a challenge and stopping in to help them. Getting pulled into an emerging situation. Contributing to an impromptu brainstorming session. Building a personal friendship. Chatting about your dream vacation. All these things are much more likely to happen in person.

Employers tell me two things that have proven almost universally true during the pandemic and the work-from-home period. First, on most ongoing projects, we were all generally able to be more productive, more quickly, than most people thought, even in their most optimistic projections. The second is that certain aspects of work have been much more difficult in a pure remote environment. These include culture and team-building, creative and generative thinking, starting entirely new initiatives.

Both of these factors will have permanent implications on the workplace. Generally, employees are going to see more flexibility in their work arrangements. For some employers, this might be very flexible, for some less so, but on the whole, there is a newfound recognition that more can be accomplished remotely than we once thought. The second implication is that the physical office, in-person meeting and human connections still have an important place, and they are not going anywhere anytime soon. Those who abandon them as a relic no longer needed will face challenges as a result.

This is why I think this guidance is particularly essential for younger people, or those at an early stage of a new career, regardless of their life stage: go back to the office.

Every situation is different and every guideline has exceptions. If you have a health reason or live with an immunocompromised person, by all means, work from home until you feel it is safe to make a change. Certain people and types of work will flourish in a totally remote environment. There are also highly digitally-enabled tech companies with global teams where the office may not be important, or in many cases may not even exist. Also, working from home has some big advantages—zero commute time, casual attire and more childcare flexibility—that people will likely want to continue as part of their work mix.

If someone is working on established projects, with a big network of strong relationships with partners and colleagues they’ve worked with for decades, they might be able to get by fine with little office time.

But if you are trying to climb the ladder, expand your network and build relationships, you need to show up. Literally. In many ways, your network can be your net worth.

Some human resources experts will say presenteeism doesn’t matter, and that, in theory, all that should count is quality of work. All I can say to that is: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

Some of your peers will prefer to stay home out of pure preference. The reality is, they are signalling and moving right on the career highway, allowing you the opportunity to pass. Take it.

As appeared in the Calgary Herald

Scott Crockatt is Vice President of the Business Council of Alberta.

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