Why Are Good Companies Abandoning COVID-Inspired Workplace Flexibility?
At the end of January, office occupancy hit 50% for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. The march to return workers to the office, likely coupled with some nervousness driven by economic uncertainty, has pushed the rate of occupancy on a continuous upward slope for months.
JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has taken a lot of heat as a huge proponent of returning workers to the office. But to be fair, JP Morgan was never known as a standout proponent of workplace flexibility. The fact that Dimon wants all workers back in the office, as much as possible, shouldn’t be a shock. Even people who were hired remotely throughout the pandemic should’ve expected that JP Morgan would return to their offices as soon as they could.
The question now is: Is that a bad thing?
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It’s one thing to ask your employees to return to the office when you're JP Morgan; it's another when you're the darlings of technology and entertainment like Salesforce, Apple and Disney.
Universally lauded as some of the best places to work in the world, all three of these companies have either openly wondered how to get people back into offices or are implementing plans to do so in short order.
In Salesforce’s case, Marc Benioff openly questioned if bringing newer employees to the office would help solve some of the company's productivity challenges. The co-founder and co-CEO called out new employees’ lower productivity as possibly driven by a lack of tribal knowledge best promoted in an office culture.
Apple has been trying for more than a year to get employees back to the office at least three days a week. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that in-person collaboration is essential, though they wouldn’t be mandating five days a week, and acknowledged that the office is a ghost town on Fridays.
Disney made headlines earlier this year, with returning CEO Bob Iger stating employees must start working from the office four days a week starting in March. Iger told employees in an e-mail, “In a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors.”
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Failure to Innovate, or Something Else?
In some ways, Benioff, Cook and Iger are right. Research from MIT suggests that the “weak ties” that often drive innovation and cross-functional work in organizations declined during the pandemic. Microsoft also found similar results.
Interestingly enough, though, McKinsey's research on the topic found that working remotely actually accelerated innovation.
The truth is, adapting to hybrid and remote work isn’t easy. It takes work. Intentional work. Even for me, as a long-time remote employee, it took significant time to feel comfortable with collaborating with colleagues remotely.
Giving and getting feedback requires more intention and awareness. Mentoring and coaching must be emphasized and repeated. Communication and relationship-building take more time or must be refreshed with regular, in-person meetings.
But all of these issues aren’t just remote or hybrid work challenges. They are evergreen workplace issues that every organization deals with on a regular basis. That some might be more or less challenging doesn’t change that reality.
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Organizations that have committed to hybrid and remote work flexibility are intentionally building mechanisms to make this work long-term. It’s not impossible unless you wish it to be.
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Different Approaches for Different Organizations
Could MIT and McKinsey both be right, even though their research showed diametrically opposite results? I have to believe the answer is yes.
Salesforce, Apple and Disney are large organizations where people get together and collaborate in person in thousands of simultaneous conversations. They are all part of a sort of rolling moving wave of ideas shepherding them forward.
In other organizations, collaboration and innovation might be more episodic, targeted and not require the sort of broad cross-functional capabilities to drive the results they need.
While centralized organizations gain those weak ties, decentralized organizations gain better buy-in from under-represented groups. Workforce diversity can also be an asset when it comes to innovation.
With layoffs and weaker hiring in the technology and entertainment industries, organizations might also be looking at this as an opportunity to leverage uncertainty to get people back to where they know they can perform. Other organizations will use those moves to try to upgrade their talent by offering them what they can’t get through their larger employers.
Which companies will win? I believe both in-person, hybrid and remote work can be resilient workforce strategies for the long haul. While you and I might have our preferences, there is likely enough for top companies that offer any of these approaches to succeed.
For companies that aren’t top employers, the return to the office may, however, be a harder and harder sell to current and perspective employees.
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About the Author
Lance Haun is a leadership and technology columnist for Reworked. He has spent nearly 20 years researching and writing about HR, work and technology.