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How do you decide if your employees should return to the office?


2 June 2022 at 4:29 pm
Wendy Williams
Following two years of pandemic-disrupted workplaces, people are heading back to the office. But how do you decide what’s right for your team? New research argues you should look to Aristotle.


Wendy Williams | 2 June 2022 at 4:29 pm


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How do you decide if your employees should return to the office?
2 June 2022 at 4:29 pm

Following two years of pandemic-disrupted workplaces, people are heading back to the office. But how do you decide what’s right for your team? New research argues you should look to Aristotle.

Elon Musk made headlines on Thursday after it was revealed he had told staff at Tesla they can no longer work from home – they must return to the office or leave the company.

“If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned,” he is quoted as saying.

A number of workers have understandably (and anonymously) expressed their displeasure over the move.

But what is the right way to handle the return-to-office discussion? And whose interests should carry the day?

According to new research from Curtin University, the answer may actually lie in the works of Aristotle – who put purpose at the centre of decision-making.

The report, A purpose-focused approach to decisions about returning to in-person office work, puts forward a “philosophically informed decision-making methodology”, offering a practical way for employers to decide whether employees should return to the office based on understanding both the purpose of the particular organisation, and the role of the individual.

“Aristotle believed that if we can define an activity’s purpose, we will be better equipped to understand its proper exercise and deployment, since the purpose will define the relevance and appropriate application of its attributes,” the report explains.

“For example, if the purpose of a knife is to cut things, then a knife made from jelly would not fulfil its purpose.”

Building on this, the report argues that if we determine that the fundamental purpose of office work is “dignity and economic self-sufficiency for employees”, then the lived experience of those employees and their preferences regarding work location should count for a lot. 

If, on the other hand, the purpose of work is principally economic productivity that produces profits for employers, then profitability considerations will be foremost. 

“The true picture will probably be some amalgam of these, as suggested by discussions about which jobs are valuable, worthwhile, and desirable, and why, and which employers are amongst the best,” the report says.

To help put this into context, the report uses examples of an accountant operating as a sole trader, a civil design engineer, and a training manager. In each case the report considers whether or not the particular role needs to work in an office environment by first identifying the primary purpose of the organisation, then locating the role’s corresponding contribution to the organisation purpose, before finally specifying the particular activities that realise that contribution.

Ultimately the research concludes that by aligning the decision about a return to work with the fundamental purpose of work, individual roles, and a business overall, it is possible to ensure that new work arrangements will be consistent with the organisation’s reason for being. 

Read the full report here.


Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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