Why Your ‘Back to the Office’ Strategy Could Fail

When executives make sweeping generalizations about whether their employees want to stay working remotely or come back to the office, it’s a good sign that their workforce strategy is going to fail. If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that our employees have a wide range of opinions about working remotely.  

It’s rare to find that an entire workforce is aligned on their feelings about working remotely or in an office. I’ve surveyed companies where 30% of employees say they’ll look for a new job if they’re forced to come back to the office. In other organizations, I’ve seen two-thirds say they’re desperate to get out of their homes and will start searching for jobs that offer an in-the-office experience.

A Plethora of Preferences

In the study “The State of Working From Home,” we discovered that 9% of people want to work in an office all the time, 23% want to work from home all the time, and 39% want to work from home three to four days per week. Obviously, there’s a diversity of feelings.

The reasons for wanting to return to the office (or stay remote) are equally as varied, and it’s more complicated than whether someone has young children at home. For example, our study discovered that parents whose children are doing any remote learning are less likely to want full-time remote working, but they’re also less likely to want full-time in the office.

An employee’s personality has a lot to do with their preferred working situation. For example, highly proactive personalities experience much better productivity working from home. In fact, 41% of highly proactive people say their productivity is much better working from home. By contrast, only 14% of people with low proactivity say their productivity is much better working from home.

My goal here is not to overcomplicate your life or serve as the harbinger of doom. Rather, I want you to consider your workforce’s uniqueness to determine the best way forward.

Far too many executives operate from a priori and absolute assumptions about the optimal workforce configuration. I’m sure you’ve heard executives say, for example, “True collaboration can only take place when people are face-to-face,” or, “Remote working is the wave of the future.” Maybe one of those statements is universally true, but it’s far more likely that your workforce is composed of people with a range of opinions. And it’s also probable that the best approach for your return to the office will involve a hybrid solution.

Meaningful Solutions

One of the biggest questions your company will need to answer is, “Why do we want people to come back to the office?” The reflexive answer typically involves collaboration or camaraderie or culture. But those responses are far too superficial.

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Imagine that your company’s executives believe employees need to be in the office to foster better collaboration. That’s great, but how does being face-to-face actually foster better collaboration? Perhaps people collaborate better in face-to-face meetings, or in informal conversations immediately after meetings, or in the random hallway conversations that often occur on slower days. Assuming those are all true, we now need to ask whether it’s necessary to have every employee in the office every day of the week to get those benefits.

For instance, imagine that we had two in-office days that were exclusively for face-to-face meetings, with 30-minute buffers attached to all meetings to foster post-meeting conversations. Wouldn’t that be more effective than simply going back to the office and reverting to our pre-pandemic (and mind-numbing) meeting schedules?

Let’s also remember that not every leader wants intense interactions with their team five days a week. It’s common to see managers and executives who like to reserve one or two days a week for accomplishing their deep-thinking projects, like writing reports or designing new strategies or building a new sales presentation. Perhaps we design a hybrid schedule where everyone, including managers and executives, gets one day a week to work from home and accomplish mountains of deep work. Does it make sense to have everyone come into the office just so they can lock their doors and work independently?

Taking this one step further, you’re likely to find that some departments are working on projects where face-to-face brainstorming is critically important, while others have accomplished their creative ideation, tasks have been assigned, and now they’re focused on individual execution. The former department will likely benefit far more from working in the office than the latter.

The point is that your workforce is unique, and so too are your departments and teams. By being a bit flexible and eschewing sweeping pronouncements about working remotely or in the office, we can design a system that fosters increased productivity and emotional wellness for the majority of our people.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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