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Why Returning to the Office Is a Mistake (and 2 Reasons to Go Back Anyway)

May 13, 2022 Digital Workplace
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

The end of the remote work era is nigh, and employees will soon be clacking away at their keyboards back in the corporate office. At least that's the vision, according to several big companies that announced the end of remote work policies. The response for some has been pushback from employees and proponents of remote work.

Tech giants Google and Twitter saw their return-to-office policies critiqued and questioned in the press, while initial data from Apple’s return-to-office policy showed 76% of its employees aren't happy about the decision. In fact, more than half (56%) said they are planning to leave as a result.

What does it all mean for a return to the office? Are the arguments in favor of in-office work strong enough to survive the negative press?  

4 Reasons Why Return-to-Office Arguments Are Wrong

There are many reasons why organizations are considering a return to the office, but few haven't had a rebuttal. Here are four common arguments for a return to the office and why they're wrong.

1. The Office Will Increase Productivity and Collaboration

“The most common arguments companies are making for why they want employees to return are to increase productivity as well as encourage a more team collaboration type of environment,” said Sean Chaudhary, CEO at Calabasas, Calif.-based Alchemy Leads. Many executives believe their employees struggle to connect with peers or feel like part of the team if they aren’t in the same place as their coworkers. 

The counterargument invariably points to the mounting research that shows remote work boosts productivity. Furthermore, the proliferation of collaboration software, from Slack and Microsoft Teams to video conferencing tools like Zoom and GoToMeeting, enables team members to communicate and collaborate on projects at a scale and depth not possible before. 

Related Article: Are We Heading for a Remote Work Standoff?

2. Office Work Combats Employee Loneliness and Disengagement

Another argument against remote work is that employees can become isolated and experience feelings of loneliness. The knock-on effects of this are disengaged employees who lack motivation to do their jobs. In fact, the opposite can be the case.

"Many employees tend to feel more connected to their job when working remotely," Chaudhary said. "They have to find more intrinsic motivation to complete their work and be consistently productive.”

Because of the lack of commute and more control of their time, remote employees have an opportunity to improve work-life balance, which means they can find other ways to be social and avoid loneliness, including the use of a coworking space. There are specific ways employers can offer support if loneliness and burnout are on the rise.

3. Bosses Can't Trust Workers to Get the Job Done

Many advocates for a return to the office report not being able to adequately monitor performance and engagement when workers are not physically present. They do not trust that employees are working as agreed upon when in a remote setting.

Proximity bias makes this kind of thinking a problem for hybrid workplaces, too. If employees in the office receive preferential treatment, intentionally or not, this can create variances in productivity and treatment between in-office and remote employees. Dave MacLeod, CEO and co-founder of Rossland, British Columbia-based ThoughtExchange, said the onus is on employers to establish an environment of fairness, trust and accountability.

“Employees have shown they can be trusted to work with less oversight and now businesses also need to gain worker trust on critical issues of equity,” he said. 

Related Article: Is Employee Monitoring Software Worth the Trouble?

4. Our Corporate Culture Is Suffering

The rallying cry for a return to the office typically focuses on the positive impact it has on culture. Some argue that working together in an office fosters serendipity, strengthens engagement and increases innovation.

However, a similar level of togetherness and innovation can occur while working remotely, thanks to the assortment of tools remote-first organizations use. Some  companies also organize retreats and meetups in different locations to bring team members together regularly while providing them the flexibility they seek from their employer.

Related Article: Is a Return to the Office Right for Company Culture?

Why You Should Still Consider a Return to the Office

While there are strong arguments against a return to the office, there are some benefits to implementing a hybrid or flexible in-office policy. Two among them stand out:

1. Reduced Tech Fatigue

One of the drawbacks of remote work is the increased reliance on technology. Video conferencing replaced in-person meetings, leading to the Zoom fatigue phenomenon that is exhausting employees.

In a hybrid environment, people won’t need to rely on technology to mediate every interaction with peers and can reserve meetings for in-person occasions, which will free up time to complete work asynchronously without interruptions. 

2. Defining the Future of Work

The pandemic forced many organizations to rethink the way they work, with some positive change coming out of an otherwise difficult situation. As companies ponder what's next, it's important to keep an experimental mindset to keep the innovation cycle humming. That applies to in-person work just as much as it does remote work. Locking into one way of working can stifle change.

"We have the chance to overhaul how we work and implement new efficiencies that were previously holding companies back,” said Steve Gottlieb, CEO and founder of New York City-based Shindig.

Offices can be become less of a temporary daily storage facility for workers and more of an innovation and collaboration hub, but that shift will require a change to management style as well as office environment. Companies should openly discuss work policies with employees to understand what can work and what won't.

Whatever approach a company chooses, losing talent is a sure way to fail. Companies that embrace the idea that the future of work will require negotiation between both parties will be in a better position to adapt, redefine the workplace of tomorrow and strengthen company culture. 

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