I laughed out loud reading the Guardian article reporting on James Gorman’s message to Morgan Stanley staff in the US. Gorman claims that while he’s not dictating staff return to the office, he’ll be “very disappointed” if they don’t.
It was a quote from Jamie Dimon, though, that made me spit up my tea. The JP Morgan CEO, announcing staff must return to the office full-time in July, stated that remote work is poor practice for employees who want to “hustle”. In other words, you won’t go far if you work from home.
The media (and me, I suppose) is having fun at the banking bosses’ expense, vilifying them as dinosaurs, while the dominant perspective online seems to be that where you work is irrelevant. Adam Grant of The Wharton School weighed in with “Productivity is about purpose and process, not place.” And across the pond, Deloitte UK is taking a big swing in that direction, announcing employees can work from home forever.
There are other perspectives in the mix, arguing the importance of in-office work, but it’s an unpopular opinion. One comment suggesting businesses need people where it makes sense for the business, not wherever people want to work, is at a sad five likes, while the (unoriginal) “Unfortunately there are still folks who are more focused on presence than results,” is at 161 and climbing. In more big-company news, Apple’s announcement of a return to office three days a week (reasonable, no?) has been characterized as “cancelling the future.”
The news and surrounding discourse create the impression that all employees want to work from home, and curmudgeonly employers better get with the program. The #NewWorldOfWork is employee versus employer, and employees are going to win or quit!!
It doesn’t take much digging, though, to uncover that this isn’t reality.
The truth is that fully remote, fully centralized, and hybrid/flexible are all valid options. What matters is that leaders are honest with themselves about the why behind the decision, and consider three questions as they work through it:
- What’s right for the business?
- What’s important to our employees?
- How do we engage people, wherever they work?
What’s right for the business?
The debate around remote work seems to focus on whether people are productive at home. This is an unwinnable argument because it isn’t one size fits all.
It takes me eight hours at the office to do what it takes me five hours to do at Waves sipping my English Breakfast almond milk misto. I have colleagues, however, for whom the office is the most productive location (mid pandemic or not). Ultimately, the productivity question depends on the individual and the task to be done. (And keep in mind we’re only talking about the privileged 20% of the workforce with roles that can be done remotely.)
Management capability, of course, impacts the effectiveness of remote workers. I led a leadership session recently and a participant shared that he doesn’t “even know where people are or what they’re doing.” In this case, you have a management problem, not a remote work problem, and it will be a problem no matter where people work.
The real argument against work from home is that work is more than a race to individual productivity. A BCG survey of 12,000 professionals found that while most people were at least as productive at home on individual tasks, only 50% found they were as productive on collaborative tasks. Some employees have roles that are largely independent; for the rest of us, the speed and effectiveness of in-person communication positively impacts collaborative work, according to employees.
And our ability to do great work is bigger than productivity. It isn’t always about putting our heads down and producing as much as possible as quickly as possible. Hearing laughter from across the office at the end of the day, seeing a friendly head pop around the door frame to say hello, or darting out for gelato (all things that happened at my office in the last week), while admittedly distractions, enhance the work experience.
I’ll grant you that many CEOs are simply resisting change, holding on to what they consider “normal.” I’m not defending them. But many genuinely believe that work from home could be damaging to the culture and company performance in the long-term. I find it hard to believe Tim Cook is forcing Apple employees back three days a week because he’s stuck in the past and likes having people around. Leaders are responsible for productivity and team cohesiveness, and unless you’ve been in the position of managing a P&L and keeping people engaged, you might have something to learn from their perspective.
There’s no doubt there are valid arguments on both sides. In asking what’s right for the business, consider what you (and employees) gained working from home, what you lost, and how you can keep what you gained and regain what you lost.
Also consider what you might lose in returning to the office: employees.
What’s important to employees?
Despite the divisive headlines positioning the work from home decision as an epic showdown between employer and employee, few people are asking for fully remote work.
A study by Robert Half suggests 50% of Canadians currently working from home would prefer a hybrid arrangement. A global study by Microsoft shows that over 65 percent of workers are craving more in-person time with their teams (but do want flexible remote options to continue).
If memory serves, surveys have always shown that most people want flexibility. The reason we’re talking about it now is that people got a taste of what they always wanted and have moved it up the priority list, forcing employers’ hands.
It would be safe to assume your employees want some level of flexibility or ability to work from home (you can ask them if you’re not sure). And with more organizations offering flexible work, there may be a negative impact on talent attraction and retention if you don’t. It’s up to you to balance this consideration with others such as impacts to collaborative productivity and long-term team cohesiveness.
How do we engage people?
Instead of deciding how to best police work from home, what if we asked, “How do we make the office somewhere people want to be?”
One of my teammates was scheduled to work from home recently and she turned up at the office. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “Oh, well, it’s just nicer here, and some people are going for lunch.” Later in the week, I noticed a colleague reading a book in the common area at the end of the day. She could have gone home, but she didn’t. I’m guessing it’s because, for her, the office isn’t a jail she’s been forced into and can’t wait to get out of, it’s one of multiple places in her life, and one where she’s comfortable.
Dina Dommett at Oxford shared this anecdote on LinkedIn recently:
“I’m reminded of wise words from Oxford Professor Richard Barker…Some faculty complained about student truancy. They wanted us to force students to attend. Richard’s advice? “Be interesting.” If companies want workers to turn up, they need to make the workplace interesting and […] worth the time and effort workers spend to get there. This is a worthier task than policing people to be back at their desks.”
I could work from home more than I do, but I go to the office because it’s often easier, easier to communicate with the team, easier to use the big office printer than my little home one that for some reason refuses to print in colour, and because I believe it’s important to have face time to maintain a personal connection with my colleagues.
The importance of creating engaging work and workplaces is only increasing. If you want engaged, productive employees, focus on improving on the drivers of employee engagement, such as setting clear expectations, demonstrating you care about your employees, and investing in their growth and development.
It’s worth noting that the research on engagement doesn’t say a thing about work from home flexibility, just like it doesn’t say a thing about compensation. This is because, for employees, flexibility, like compensation, isn’t a driver of engagement (or performance), it’s a problem they need to solve so they can focus on the work that drives them.
Looking past the headlines to the evidence, I conclude the following:
- Individual productivity is at least as high working from home
- Collaborative productivity is lower working from home
- Team cohesiveness may suffer in the long-term in work from home environments
- Employees want to work from home some of the time
- Creating engaging, meaningful work environments is a more important lever for increasing performance than where people work
As you consider what’s right for your business, what employees want, and how best to balance the two, consider the above, recognize that this is an evolving discussion, stay flexible, and focus on engagement and personalization over policy.
Author: Ali Grovue