Blog: Why are we really going back to the office?

Talent Management

Why are we really going back to the office?

Return to office plans are all the rage, but do companies actually know why they are bringing people back to the physical workplace? In Part 1 of a two-part series, we look at the case for the return.
Why are we really going back to the office?

We’re living in the midst of a perfect storm. With the bank bailouts, focus on optimisation and tech layoffs, job security has gone out the window. Organisations are pulling employees back into the office, hard won work life balance is being put to test and all of this while we’re still re-evaluating our relationship with work. For this piece however, we’ll place aside the other elements and focus on one tiny element of the storm – the increasing pressure to go back to the office. I will admit upfront that for a large section of the workforce, working from home was never an option. It was a privilege afforded by a tiny fraction who are now going up in arms when being asked to return to the office. 

Citigroup, BNY Mellon, Apple, Google and Twitter are just some of the organisations that have led the push to bring people back into the office at least a few days a week. surveyed 1,000 business leaders in September 2022, to find out if their company has implemented a return to office plan or if they intend to in 2023. For companies that are currently hybrid, 77% say their policy will change. 66% of employers currently require employees to work from office, 90% of companies will require employees to return to office in 2023 and 88% of companies are offering incentives to get employees to return, including catered meals (41%), commuter benefits (35%), and higher pay (34%). A percentage (13%) will shift to having employees be back full-time from the office, 40% will require employees to come in 4 days a week, and 31% 3 days a week. Whichever way you look at it, permanent remote work is far from becoming the norm. 

The case for bringing people back into the office has a common theme of the 4 C’s: Culture, Collaboration, Creativity and Connection. These organisations aren’t bringing people back for the short-term objectives of profit or productivity, but to mitigate the long-term impact of culture erosion, improved collaboration, bolstered creativity via epiphanic interactions, and a greater feeling of connection with team members and the organisation. While each of these C’s are an article in themselves, let’s take a brief look at them: 

Connection: I could (and will) cite data on this but I doubt anyone will disagree. Bonds will always be stronger when built in person vs virtually. I support leaders who I have never met in person and building a similar rapport with them as with the leaders I support locally is an uphill climb. Can it be done? Yes! Is it the same? Never. Meeting people regularly in-person further solidifies the bond and why is this important? Because social capital, the benefits people get because of who they know, is invaluable. Who do we turn to when we’ve hit a roadblock, are left scratching our heads or need a favor? It’s usually someone we’ve built a rapport with. 

Per Microsoft’s Work Trends report 2021, interactions within close networks increased, while interactions with distant networks diminished. Between April 2020 and February 2021, the number of people posting chats in a channel designed to include the whole team decreased by five percent. In contrast, the number of people posting small group or one-on-one chats has increased by 87%. While there have been swings in how connected we are to our colleagues, we are yet to go anywhere close to the pre-pandemic numbers. Nearly 60% of people we surveyed feel less connected to their colleagues since working remotely more often. In China, this number spiked to 70%. Per a more recent report (Sept 2022), New hires' reliance on their managers for onboarding support increased nearly 20 percent compared to before the pandemic. Another study found that remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration.

If the case was connection alone, it is clear that a remote work environment has increased dependency on manager for a feeling of connection to the team and the organisation, there has been a fall in social capital, employees feel less connected to colleagues and far less connected to the organisation and there exists a hypothesis that new hires take longer to ramp up given the lack of informal interactions that existed in the workplace. While these may not impact organisation and team success over the short term, as connections continue to fray, it will have a longer-term impact on multiple adjacent factors. 

Collaboration: A few months ago, I had a long conversation with a principal engineer who spent a while reminiscing about the days when teams would come together around a whiteboard to make key design decisions. ‘It now takes at least double the time to make the same decisions that we would have made in a single day in the office,’ he said. He isn’t the only one feeling this way. Per the most cited research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, when studying the effects of WFH collaboration, the team discovered that cross-team collaboration decreased by a factor of 25%. Workers tended to collaborate more often with strong social ties and less often with looser social ties. As a result, teams were less likely to access new information. Another study by McKinsey states that “Additionally, employers have found during the pandemic that although some tasks can be done remotely in a crisis, they are much more effectively done in person. These activities include coaching, counselling, and providing advice and feedback; building customer and colleague relationships; bringing new employees into a company; negotiating and making critical decisions; teaching and training; and work that benefits from collaboration, such as innovation, problem-solving, and creativity. If onboarding were to be done remotely, for instance, it would require significant rethinking of the activity to produce outcomes similar to those achieved in person.” 

Much like Connection, remote work has a direct impact on collaboration especially with weaker ties and those outside the immediate team. Again, while the impact on business results may not surface in the short term, in the long term, it may lead to less than ideal outcomes.  

Creativity: Needless to say, connection and collaboration are considered key ingredients for creativity. Organisations have invested millions into the idea that spontaneous interactions lead to sparks of innovation that transform into pathbreaking innovation. Innovation rarely happens in isolation. For centuries, we’ve believed in the fact that innovation is strongest “when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas.” This isn’t because creativity cannot take place in isolation. It is because creativity includes taking those sparks from nascent ideas and converting them to products/services. That’s where the rubber hits the road. Articles like this and research such as this has told us spontaneous interactions are critical and now that the ask for remote work is on the rise, the fear that creativity will be inhibited by remote work is valid. Yes, there are examples of many more Häagen-Dazs flavours created during the pandemic yet if we were to look at trends, I am willing to place a bet that unless we figure another way, creativity will be on a decline if we don’t return to the workplace occasionally. Does occasionally mean a fixed number of days in the office? I don’t know. Does it mean instance-based travel to an office? Definitely. Do we know how many years before we find spontaneous serendipitous connections online? Not really. 

Culture: This is without doubt the one everyone is most conflicted on. The executive leadership is sold on the fact that ‘culture is caught, not taught’ and that it is easier to catch culture when in the office together. This argument has its own merits; however, one needs to be very conscious of the message a forced return to office sends about culture. They say actions speak louder than words and a forced return indicates a lack of trust, reduced autonomy and an authoritarian rule. Gallup starts by saying that remote work is a threat to culture but goes to say that ‘before you know your culture, you should know what drives it,’ and ‘make virtual work strategy a core of cultural strength.’ Gallup also found that those who work virtually have more autonomy over their work and are 15 percentage points more likely to feel like they can do what they do best every day. Multiple other articles remain conflicted on the impact of remote work on culture dilution. Over the past three years, I’ve participated in conversation where I’ve heard, “the support for remote work demonstrates an inclusive culture” and “I am so glad this company treats me as an adult capable of making decisions for myself.” 

Of the 4 Cs, this one has the weakest argument. While employees have fewer strong connections within the workplace, organisations witness higher turnover due to lack of a feeling of belonging, everyone finds collaboration harder and creativity hindered due to remote work, culture may suffer if everyone was forced to return to an office, unless you want that to be a part of how culture is interpreted. 

While there are aspects that suffer due to remote work, we know that every decision had its pros and cons. A balanced view required an analysis of the advantages of remote or choice-based work in just as much depth as the 4 Cs. Only then can we determine which one holds higher benefits. I am aware that bundling the downside of returning to an office into this article would turn this into a novella. Thus, to give the other side as much (if not greater) credit, it is only fair that it be split into a separate post. However, before I end, I will leave you with a quote I stumbled across while pulling this piece together. A career strategist and job search coach, Stacie Haller says, “I believe some of this (push to return to office) is generational. Older managers are not used to working with a remote team and hold prejudices and have outdated ideas about work culture. If these return-to-office decisions were in the hands of younger managers, who are more accustomed to working remotely, I think we’d see less companies shifting back to an in-office culture.”

Is this true? Who can tell? But until we know, let’s wait and watch which way this tide turns and for part 2. 

P.S: If you are looking for a regularly updated low down on which organisations require their employees to come into the office, you can find a list here.

Did you enjoy this article? Check out the one before it on how to reduce the manager tax.

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Topics: Talent Management, Culture, #HybridWorkplace

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