Why are companies obsessed with getting people back in the office?
The choice of remote vs. in-office is one of tradeoffs. There are winners and losers. Depending on the industry, company, team makeup, priorities, and personalities involved, different decisions will benefit – and hamper – different people.
That said, the argument for mandatory in-office work is wearing pretty thin – and employees know it. Workers aren’t blind to their own reality; they know that over the past 1.5 years remote work has helped increase productivity, focus, and satisfaction, without sacrificing quality or efficiency. It has also improved peoples’ emotional and financial health and given them back time (goodbye commutes!).
So my question is – how are employers rationalizing the decision to return to the office? And moreover, why do leaders want people back in the office so badly? What do they stand to gain – or lose?
Let’s break down the arguments to figure out which make sense, and which are total bullshit.
The “back to normal” argument
For the past year, we’ve been counting down the days until a ‘return to normal.’ That’s been the dream. The hope. The intention – to get back to life as it was before.
And here we are, at the tail end of this pandemic, and few people are racing back to their old offices. That must be confusing to so many managers and leaders who have been eagerly awaiting the time when they could finally bring their teams back together. Especially for those managers who have struggled to lead remotely, the leaders who found it difficult to maintain team cohesion and inclusion from afar (WSJ).
“It’s only temporary” was a mantra for so many this year. And now that people have to face that these changes may not, in fact, be temporary – they’re frightened. That’s fair. But is it smart to make business decisions from a place of fear?
The “culture” argument
No matter how many remote-culture articles are published, the fear of eroding company culture persists. And for good reason. Forced out of our offices, we’ve lost that precious something that used to keep us happy and loyal at work. At least, that’s the argument.
Yet “culture” hasn’t entirely disappeared. It has just been replaced by a new kind of culture – a hybrid thing that integrates workplace practices with broader household routines. We’ve replaced water cooler chatter with the comforting regularity of seeing our kids over lunch or talking through a work problem with our partner.
For some of us, this has been a welcome change. For others – especially those who live alone, or live in a distracting environment – this change has been off-putting.
Still, it’s unlikely that forcing people back into a constrained work environment will solve the culture problem. A blanket solution to a highly individualized situation is likely to fail – especially when employees hold such bargaining power.
The “collaboration + creativity” argument
Water cooler talk is often credited with spontaneous moments of creativity and problem solving, and CEOs have long touted the generative benefits of holding coworkers in close proximity.
But is there hard evidence that being around your coworkers sparks anything other than idle chit chat?
“The idea of random serendipity being productive is more fairy tale than reality.”
– Ethan S. Bernstein, Harvard professor (NYT)
There’s been a good deal of research on the topic, and all signs point to no – close proximity to coworkers isn’t linked to an increase in creativity or productivity (NYT). Although you might talk to your coworkers more in-office, those conversations tend to revolve around your personal life or minor work-related problems. Such conversations may encourage camaraderie and positive culture, but they’re not useful for generating creativity or increasing productivity.
So while your CEO might enjoy the buzz of chatter in the hallways, they are fooling themselves if they think that chatter is helping their bottom line. In fact, it often means people are less productive and less satisfied with their work.
The “think of the new people!” argument
The remote/hybrid office is one of transience. If people are coming into the office at all, they likely won’t be the same people every day – making it difficult to forge friendships or gain mastery of the social environment (The Atlantic). The sense of belonging that usually follows from working day after day alongside the same people, now might take weeks, months, possibly a year for new recruits. It’s not a comforting picture.
There are some winners and some losers in the remote revolution – and junior people, with no seniority and little experience, are definitely the losers. There’s no way around it. You can only try to mitigate the situation. Here’s what we recommend:
1. Create clear, comprehensive onboarding and management material for new recruits. Set expectations, book everything in their calendars in advance, and have them join clubs and groups.
2. Host social gatherings where new people can regularly meet and befriend their colleagues, either in-office or virtually.
3. Hold weekly/regular in-office meetings for face-to-face collaboration
4. Consider hiring or appointing a “training manager” to help get your new recruits up to speed quickly and seamlessly. We’ve done this at Proven Recruiting and it has made a significant difference for new people!
The (not so public) “control” argument
It’s impossible to disagree with this argument because it is, without a doubt, true. Workers are better controlled in an office setting, where their movements can be carefully monitored.
Still, we seriously doubt many employers will use this argument when defending their decision to bring people back to work. At least not publicly.
No one knows what the future holds. This remote experiment has only been going on for 1.5 years, and it’s hard to determine what another 1.5 year might do to company culture, time management, onboarding, collaboration, etc. All we can do is make educated guesses and try to do what’s best for people and their goals.
I’m happy to walk you through the different scenarios and help you hone in on what’s fair and competitive in today’s market. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org for guidance! Or to share your opinion on remote/in-office work. I’m open to being proven wrong!