The War Between Leaders and Teams—Back in the Office, or Not?
Companies are starting to get really serious about making use of that expensive office space they have been paying for in spite of little—or very inconsistent—use. JP Morgan, Apple, Amazon, Google, and IBM have all told workers to come back to the office at least three days per week. Leaders believe that some things are simply better in person. They worry about productivity and wonder if people are really working. Microsoft released a new study, where it found that 85% of leaders agree that the “shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.” More concretely, 49% of managers of hybrid workers “struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.”
The most publicized example of this might be “traditionalist” business leader Elon Musk, who demanded that all Tesla and SpaceX employees be “visible” in the office and work full-time in-person—including knowledge workers. This is based on Musk’s belief that remote workers are merely “phoning it in” and only pretending to work if they are not in the office.
Are leaders’ fears founded?
Yes and no. The truth is that nearly all the data points to improved productivity for remote workers. In one such study, a NASDAQ-listed company randomly assigned call center employees to either work from home or work in the office for a period of nine months. Working from home resulted in a 13% performance increase, due to a combination of fewer sick days and a quieter, more convenient work environment. Those working from home also had improved work satisfaction and a 50% lower attrition rate.
However, a newer study involving 60,000 remote workers, conducted by Microsoft, found that while productivity increases in the short term with remote workers, innovation, creativity and communication are negatively impacted over the long run, which erodes trust and collaboration. Uh-oh!
Sidebar: A report by Zippia published in 2023 found that 74% of U.S. companies are using or plan to implement a permanent hybrid work model, and 44% of U.S. employees prefer a hybrid work model, compared to 51% of employers who prefer in-person.
So, what can be done?
It’s certainly understandable that leadership wants to get back to pre-COVID productivity and profitability. But doing so with today’s workforce requires some thought and nuanced decision-making. The Executive Team needs to shift their thinking when it comes to the future of work. Simply dictating that everyone comes back is not working very well—just ask some of the old-school law firms, financial firms and tech firms how that is going (it’s not!). Many employees are pushing back, and even Disney, an employer famous for taking care of their people, was faced with a petition signed by 2,300 employees when the company mandated four days back in the office. So, what can be done?
If you want more in-person work, try these tips:
Reduce the overall number of meetings in your company, immediately.
It’s pointless to address remote or in-person work without first looking at the sheer number of meetings happening at your company. What is the point of coming into the office if the entire day is jammed with meetings that could be conducted virtually? The absurd number of scheduled meetings erodes any efforts you are making for increased productivity, connection and innovation. People need time to do their actual job. A change in the volume of meetings needs to come from the top, with solutions like a companywide “no meeting day,” cultural permission to question meeting invites, and company brainstorming about how to reduce meetings overall.
Make decisions about remote, in-person or hybrid based on the nature of the work.
There’s a difference between call-center work and creative director work, for example. Executives should resist the temptation to dictate work practices based on the fear that people are not really working when they are remote. Instead, look at the nature of the work itself. If creativity, innovation and connection are important, then some in-person work is probably necessary for the success of the organization.
Root out the mediocre or those working the system.
If you are offering remote or hybrid work and you suspect there are a few taking advantage—get rid of them fast. In most companies, employees are working hard and being honest about their output. But that occasional outlier employee who is milking the system can have a greater impact than you may think. It is important to get rid of non-producers fast before their habits spread and they kill the morale of the productive—even if it is hard to replace them.
Understand the REAL reason people resist in-person or hybrid.
The ongoing joke is that people don’t want to come to work because they don’t like wearing regular pants. But the truth is it’s not about pants—it’s about the human brain. The most ancient part of our brain dictates that we have a routine, and for a while that routine was staying home and having significantly less interaction with other humans, which came close to being hardwired during the COVID shutdown. The brain provides “happy chemicals” for sticking to a routine. However, we humans are complicated beings. We have an equally powerful part of our brain that needs people (Prefrontal Cortex/Executive Function), and that does not mean on a screen—it needs smells, touch, and sounds to be activated. It’s important to understand that people will resist because their brains are creating anxiety—but over time this can be overcome.
Sidebar: As it turns out, there are real benefits to meeting face-to-face, according to the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Real-life familiarization stimulates the brain differently and yields stronger and faster connections, the study reports.
Make it interesting, fun or novel to get back to the office or come to an offsite.
It’s easy to dictate a return to the office or make an offsite mandatory. But if you really want it to work, you might do well to think compassionately about people’s internal resistance to it and try to overcome that. Think about the majority of your team and what activities or events might create a kind of “circuit breaker” effect on their brain. It may take a few times before they once again get comfortable with in-person work. Be patient as people adjust and get the team’s input about how to make in-person work better. But after a period of time and effort, it is okay to insist, if necessary.
Will a few people quit if they are not allowed to work 100% remotely? Maybe, but if you have done all of the above and they still don’t want to come in, it may be time to part ways.