Employees Returning to the Office are Disappointed

In recent research reported by BambooHR, those Work-From-Home employees that have been asked to return to the company office are disappointed in what they’re finding. In a survey of 1,000 adult workers, 37 percent said “they felt worse in the office than even at their lowest point in the pandemic.” What were returning employees hoping for and what did they get instead?  The responses highlighted three specific expectations:

Culture.

An overwhelming majority (79 percent) said their company’s culture (a key justification for having everyone back together in the company office) hasn’t improved since they got to see colleagues in person. This corresponds with recent research I’ve done on work pride that found no significant difference between how much pride an employee had in their company whether they worked in the office or from home. In fact, those working from home expressed slightly more pride in their company than those who worked from the company’s office. Perhaps they felt more pride in their company because it trusted them enough to allow them to work from home?

A company’s culture–the unspoken rules of how everyone in the organization works together–is critical, but the evidence is thin that culture is confined to a physical place. I’m convinced work has become a state of mind more than a place to be. As such, if you have the right state of mind, including motivation and support, you can likely work from anywhere. 

Collaboration.

The study also found that “61 percent hoped for more in-person collaboration”–another supposed major benefit of having everyone back to the office–“but only 49 percent actually reported experiencing” more collaboration. This reminded me of a colleague I know that works for Google who had been encouraged to commute from downtown San Francisco to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View (an hour plus commute each way) “for greater in-person collaboration,” but says once in the office he spends most of his time speaking on the phone to colleagues in other buildings on Google’s campus, with few if any in-person meetings.

Collaboration is a function of specific actions of those individuals that work together, again, not determined by physical location as much as necessity, intention and access. Whereas physical proximity can impact ease of collaboration, it certainly is not a prerequisite for collaboration to occur.

Productivity.

Over 50 percent expected their productivity to go up after returning to the office, but nearly 2/3s have reported that not to be the case. This should come as no surprise given the case for greater productivity while working from home has been well established. In informal research I did with those I managed several decades ago in which I asked everyone to log their time and activity, those working from home were almost twice as productive. In a more recent study, 40 percent of workers who worked from home reported they were more productive than they previously had been working in the office.

What Are People Thinking?

Face it, most people prefer to work from home if given the chance. The simple comforts of being in one’s own home and the flexibility to organize their day around both work and personal priorities is a powerful draw–not even counting the saved time they gain in not having to commute each day.

This is definitely true for older workers who are less interested in returning to in-person workplaces (33% of Gen Xers and 41% of baby boomers said they preferred working from home), while younger employees report being slightly more interested in returning to in-person workplaces (28% of Millennials and 27% of Gen Zers reported being interested in full-time remote work).

However, there is a disconnect between how the topic of remote work is viewed by different levels of the organization. While 43% of rank-and-file employees believe that the majority of people at the company want to work remotely full time, only 32% of managers feel the same way and just 22% of vice presidents agreed with this sentiment, which assures that the topic will continue to be an issue of debate in organizations for the foreseeable future.

We’ve all heard the sayings “You can’t go home again” and “You can’t step in a river the same place twice. Should we add to those truisms “Work is work, no matter where you do it.” The workplace has changed and there’s no going back to how it used to be. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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