Return to the Office? Managers Shouldn’t Overstate the Benefits

Return to the Office? Managers Shouldn’t Overstate the Benefits

Managers who would like remote workers to return to the office are frustrated. The winter Covid-19 pandemic surge is over, yet nine out of 10 people working remotely would like to continue to do so at least some of the time. Workers in the major U.S. cities say they plan to cut their time in the office by half from prepandemic levels and office occupancy rates remain low.

To persuade more workers to return, a number of prominent executives have stepped up their critiques of work-from-home arrangements and doubled down on pro-office evangelism. Remote work is unambitious, disengaged, “an aberration,” lazy, the primrose path to burnout — to channel the CEOs of Morgan Stanley, WeWork, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Cisco. In offices, by contrast, mentoring, idea generation and synergies flow in a mighty stream!

Yet corporate leaders would be wise not to overstate the case for in-office work, lest they sound as if they don’t really know what goes on in cube land. It might be more persuasive to acknowledge that the office hasn’t been all that beneficial for a lot of employees — and to focus instead on making it better.

Of course it’s both useful and pleasant to see colleagues in person from time to time. A recent study I read (with some chagrin) found that even for introverts, being forced to make small talk was uplifting. But office work doesn’t guarantee the sweeping benefits some corporate leaders are touting. 

Consider three primary reasons senior managers offer in their attempt to get workers commuting again: collaboration; mentoring; and company culture

Start with collaboration. An oft-cited study from 2012 showed that scientists in labs located in the same building were more likely to collaborate; they were even more likely to work together if they were on the same floor. But a lot has changed since then. 

More recent research shows that open offices — now the default design for most knowledge workers — are associated with less collaboration, not more. In a 2018 study, Harvard Business School’s Ethan Bernstein found that when offices became more open, face-to-face conversations fell 70%. Email and instant-message traffic rose. The unwanted noise that open plans create spurs workers to wear headphones, making spontaneous conversation even tougher. To have private meetings or sensitive conversations, employees wander the halls trying to find a free conference room.

Besides, “collaborate more” isn’t a good business goal. Managers who want workers to come back to the office might do better to explain the business reasons they think more collaboration is necessary.

Just as physical proximity doesn’t guarantee smart collaboration, it also fails to automatically lead to better mentoring. In a survey conducted before the pandemic, only about half of employees said they had ever had a mentor, a figure that’s even lower for some demographic groups: Black women are the least likely to have mentors at work. 

Even if we could ensure that everyone who wanted a mentor had one, we would run into another problem: Not everyone benefits equally from mentoring. In another pre-pandemic study, employees mentored by White men earned more than those mentored by White women or people of color, likely because White male mentors are more likely to have the power to dole out plum assignments.

Trying to lure workers to return to the office by saying, “Come on in, the mentoring’s fine!” is unlikely to ring true to employees who haven’t experienced its benefits. Instead, bosses could deliver a more credible message if they acknowledged that the old status quo left a lot of people out, and that they were committed to making the workplace more inclusive — and the mentoring more worthwhile — for all employees.

Finally, company culture. Although some studies from the past two years have found that remote work increases loneliness and burnout, Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School, worries that pandemic-era research is confounded with lots of other factors, such as stress and illness. “Prior to the pandemic,” he said, “when I was interviewing remote workers, they were not stuck at home.” They socialized with friends after work and got together with colleagues outside the office. 

Even if remote work does de-emphasize company culture — and I’m not sure it does — perhaps that’s OK. It’s become common to say things like “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and “Hire for culture, train for skill.” But maybe that leans too hard on something often nebulously defined as “how we do things around here.” The emphasis on assimilation often led to hiring employees who went to the same schools, listened to the same music and wore the same Patagonia vests. Those company cultures weren’t inclusive, so it shouldn’t be surprising that nonwhite employees, on average, actually report a greater sense of belonging when working remotely

The big takeaway from the two-year experiment we’ve just conducted in remote work: Everyone is different. Your best work arrangement may not be the same as mine. Can companies allow for both?

After all, before Covid, varied work arrangements weren’t that controversial. There were colleagues in satellite offices and teammates who worked from home. Some people shifted their schedule earlier to accommodate the school bus and others shifted it later to avoid rush-hour traffic. In general, we made it work, even when people’s preferences conflicted with each other.

Even now, it’s only a minority of people who never want to spend time in the office. Most would like to come in some of the time. And that’s a good thing, since part of working on a team is balancing your own needs with those of your teammates’ — whether that’s refraining from sending late-night emails that stress out your colleagues, or occasionally showing up in person because it makes someone else’s job easier. For what it’s worth, Choudhury’s latest study suggests one or two days in the office each week is ideal. 

Employers who want to lure employees back to the office more often than that have a couple of options. They can keep insisting that offices are Valhallas replete with interpersonal chemistry and free bagels. Or they can say work harder to make the office live up to the hype. The latter would be the better approach; maybe even one worth commuting for. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

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