Back to the office? Managers should not exaggerate the benefits

Managers who would like teleworkers to return to the office are frustrated. The Covid-19 winter pandemic surge is over, but nine out of 10 people working remotely would like to continue doing so at least some of the time. Workers in major US cities say they plan to halve their time in the office from pre-pandemic levels and office occupancy rates remain low.

To persuade more workers to return, a number of prominent leaders have stepped up their criticism of work-from-home arrangements and doubled down on their pro-office evangelism. Remote work is unambitious, disengaged, “an aberration”, lazy, the main route to burnout – to funnel the CEOs of Morgan Stanley, WeWork, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Cisco. In offices, on the other hand, mentoring, idea generation and synergies flow freely!

Still, business leaders would do well not to overstate the case for working in the office, lest they come across as not really knowing what’s going on in the land of cubes. It might be more persuasive to acknowledge that the office hasn’t been so good for many employees — and instead focus on improving it.

Of course, it is 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 gossip was uplifting. But office work doesn’t guarantee the huge benefits that some business leaders are touting.

Consider three main reasons senior managers cite in their attempt to get workers back to work: collaboration; mentoring; and corporate culture.

Start by collaborating. 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, Ethan Bernstein of Harvard Business School found that when offices became more open, face-to-face conversations decreased by 70%. Email and instant message traffic has increased. Unwanted noise created by open plans encourages workers to wear headphones, making spontaneous conversations even more difficult. To have private meetings or sensitive conversations, employees roam the halls looking for a free conference room.

Also, “collaborate more” is not a good business goal. Managers who want employees back in the office had better explain the business reasons why they think more collaboration is needed.

Just as physical proximity does not guarantee intelligent collaboration, it does not automatically lead to better mentoring. In a survey conducted before the pandemic, only about half of employees said they had ever had a mentor, an even lower number for some demographic groups: Black women are the least likely to have mentors at work.

Even if we could ensure that everyone who wants a mentor would have 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 hand out work assignments. plum.

Try to entice workers back to the office by saying, “Come in, mentoring is good!” is unlikely to ring true for employees who haven’t experienced its benefits. Instead, bosses could deliver a more credible message if they recognized that the old status quo excluded many people and committed to making the workplace more inclusive – and mentoring more interesting – to all the employees.

Finally, the corporate culture. Although some studies from the past two years have shown that remote work increases loneliness and burnout, Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj Choudhury worries that pandemic-era research is being confused with many other factors, such as stress and illness. “Before the pandemic,” he said, “when I was interviewing remote workers, they weren’t stuck at home.” They socialized with friends after work and got together with colleagues outside the office.

Even if remote work doesn’t emphasize company culture — and I’m not sure it does — maybe that’s okay. It has become common to say things like “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and “Hire for culture, train for skills”. But maybe it relies too much on something often nebulously defined as “how we do things here”. The emphasis on assimilation often led to hiring employees who attended the same schools, listened to the same music, and wore the same Patagonia vests. These corporate cultures were not inclusive, so it should come as no surprise that non-white employees, on average, actually report a greater sense of belonging when working remotely.

The big lesson of the two-year experiment we just conducted on remote work: everyone is different. Your best working arrangement may not be the same as mine. Can companies afford both?

After all, before Covid, varied working arrangements weren’t that controversial. There were colleagues in satellite offices and teammates working 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 got it to work, even when people’s preferences conflicted with each other.

Even now, only a minority of people ever want to spend time in the office. Most would like to come once in a while. And that’s a good thing, because part of working as a team is balancing your own needs with those of your teammates – whether it’s refraining from sending stressful late-night emails your colleagues, or to occasionally show up in person because it makes someone else’s job easier. For what it’s worth, Choudhury’s latest study suggests that one or two days at the office each week is ideal.

Employers who want to bring employees into the office more often than that have several options. They can keep insisting that offices are Valhallas filled with interpersonal chemistry and free bagels. Or they may say work harder to make the office live up to the hype. The latter would be the best approach; maybe even one worth traveling for.

More writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Four-day work weeks can wear you out: Sarah Green Carmichael

The pension crisis in the United States is also a financial crisis: editorial board

Don’t call me on Friday. It’s My Time For Me: Conor Sen

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

Sarah Green Carmichael is a staff writer at Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously the Ideas and Commentary Editor at Barron’s and the Managing Editor of the Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

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