Why a return-to-office mandate will not fix productivity and collaboration woesby
Remote working has its pros and cons but the answer doesn't lie in a regulation mandate to haul everyone back into the office, argues Gethin Nadin.
At the time of writing, Activision Blizzard, Amazon, Disney, and Apple are just some of the names that have forced office workers to return to the workplace following mass remote working during the pandemic. Each time this happens, it makes front-page news as employees join together to speak out about the implications of going back to the old ways of working.
In a benchmarking survey of over 330 HR leaders representing a spectrum of industries, Gartner has found that many employers are considering mandating mass returns to the office this year. Indeed 69% say they are concerned that people are struggling with collaboration, culture, creativity and engagement due to remote and hybrid working.
Cook’s mandate only works if collaboration was the only risk or opportunity to where we work – but it isn’t
Indeed Apple CEO Tim Cook told his employees in one of the most high-profile mandates that the order to return to the Cupertino headquarters was to preserve the “in-person collaboration that is so essential to our culture”. While I think Cook is right in his views on collaboration, this mandate does feel like it prioritises collaboration above all else.
The nuances of collaboration need to be considered
The value of physical togetherness in an office is notable when compared to working from home. Recent Microsoft research on 122 billion email exchanges and 2.3 billion meeting interactions shows that although their number increased within employees’ immediate teams and close networks during remote work, interactions with secondary networks shrunk. So I’d agree that collaboration in person is best, but Cook’s mandate only works if collaboration was the only risk or opportunity to where we work – but it isn’t.
It’s one of a network of quite complex needs and opportunities based on where someone works. Collaboration doesn’t just happen because people are in the same room. It happens when an employee feels safe, and included, when they aren’t stressed or anxious and when they trust the people around them.
Why aren't we optimising hybrid working?
Caitlin Duffy, director at Gartner HR told me: “In response to increasing pressure and a potential recession, many leaders are planning to implement return to the office policies in 2023 to regain a sense of control over the workplace”. She added: “The problem leaders are experiencing is not the result of hybrid working, but a failure to fully optimise it,” and I have to agree. What many of these wholesale return-to-office policies fail to account for is the complex and ever-changing needs of a diverse and intricate workforce.
These forced mandates make no effort to understand exactly why so many employees report being happier and more productive working from home and the consequences of forcing such policies on everyone. In response to the instruction from Disney's CEO, its employees raised concerns that the back-to-the-office instruction would force resignations among some of their most talented people – which is a really good point.
Your best employees are the ones that have the most choice; restricting their experience at work will inevitably push them to move to somewhere that gives them more choices. While HR more generally continues to obsess over the personalisation of the employee experience, it seems odd that so many want to impose such blanket restrictions on their people.
Choice helps inclusion
In many ways, the pandemic highlighted many of the inequalities that still exist in our world. But it also threw up some additional challenges many hadn’t considered before – one of the most compelling of those to me was how flexibility over when and where an employee works have diversity and inclusion implications.
The move from a physical office to a virtual one did appear to ease some of the burdens for black employees. As a result, some research suggests a preference for more home working is higher among black employees than white. Future Forum, a research group focused on workplace issues, found that Black workers are happier in their jobs and have a more favourable view of their employer when working remotely. It appears that for many marginalised groups, working remotely removes some of the subtle racism, sexism and homophobia that can exist in our workplaces.
Remote working became a godsend for working mothers too. Mass remote working during the pandemic began to reverse the rising US trend of mothers opting out of the workforce. Something as simple as removing the commute enabled working mothers to get more of their caring and home responsibilities done while continuing to work full-time.
If an employee delivers the work you need them to who cares whether they work four days a week or start work at 10am?
Output and not time or location should be your focus
I’m bored of this binary argument that continues to prevail, in the office or at home. For every survey that shows employees want to work remotely, there is another that says they want to get back to the office. The real issue for employers here is whether you treat your people as the individuals they are, trusting and empowering them to make the choices they need to, to give you their best.
If an employee delivers the work you need them to, to the standard you expect and is happy and content, who cares whether they work four days a week or start work at 10am? For a hybrid future to work, we have to start to destroy and rebuild our idea of what success, productivity and time look like at work.
As more and more companies encourage or force a return to in-person work, the data on productivity should be concerning. Productivity jumped in the second quarter of 2020 as offices closed and employees worked from home. Productivity levels stayed at this height throughout 2021 and then dropped sharply in early 2022 – as a direct response to many ‘return to the office’ requests. Productivity continued to drop sharply in Q1 and Q2 of 2022 and has since never returned to the levels we saw when remote working was mainstream.
I don’t think remote working on its own is good for the business, or the individual. With everything I have researched and read on hybrid, remote and workplace working, the optimum way for both employee and employer sits somewhere in between. People need to be around other people. Collaboration works better in person. Commutes can benefit our mental health but damage our financial wellbeing. Too many Zoom calls burn us out, and too much time alone stops us from building resilience to stress.
For the future of work to be bright for all involved, we have to get comfortable with hybrid working and for us to do that, we as employers have to change. This means optimising where and when someone works based on their specific role, team or department and most importantly, preference.
So we don’t just accept that collaboration only works best when in person, we find ways to balance employee preference with our business needs. This could mean enabling groups of employees who live locally to meet up regularly, offering third spaces away from the office and the home that drives collaboration. We are facing new problems that require new thinking.
It has to be their choice, with your guidance
Gartner found that the more flexibility an employee has in where they work, the higher their degree of connectedness to the organisation. They also found that when an employee was able to decide where they work, they are 2.3 times more likely to achieve higher performance than employees without autonomy.
I don’t believe that working from home makes a good worker shirk more in as much as I don’t believe someone who is lazy in the office suddenly gets more productive at home. Evidence from over 105 million data points in the US confirms this. When we talk about offering more flexibility in where and when they work, we are simply asking our people to find a way that enables them to be as productive, engaged, creative and as innovative as possible.
Despite the orders of such big names in business, lots of employees are saying they simply refuse to work for an organisation that doesn’t allow them some degree of flexibility in where they work. Forty percent of software engineers say they prefer remote-only roles. Women with childcare needs are more than a third less likely to leave their job if they can work remotely. There is even evidence that forced return to work policies are driving the rise of labour unions.
Blanket in-person or remote work policies fail to understand that while the home is a haven for some, it's a nightmare for others
In my latest book, I refer to hybrid and remote work being a ball and chain and an opportunity for employers. However, treating everyone the same may once have been seen as a fair thing to do, but it is no longer. Blanket in-person or remote work policies fail to understand that while the home is a haven for some, it's a nightmare for others. While disabled workers and working mums see new opportunities for them in remote work, we know that in-person time with other people plays a huge part in our wellbeing. For hybrid working to be a success, we need to find a careful balance between organisational needs and personal needs.
Interested in this topic? Read Do you need a hybrid mindset to go with your hybrid working?
Gethin is an award-winning psychologist who has been helping some of the world’s largest organisations to improve their employee experience and wellbeing for more than two decades.
As a frequent writer and speaker on employee experience and employee wellbeing, Gethin has been featured in Forbes, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and The...