Blogs > Intentional Insights > The Surprising Reason for the Return to Office

May 8, 2023

The Surprising Reason for the Return to Office

tags: wise decision making,leadership development,wise decision maker,leaders,return to office,hybrid work,decision making process,decision-making,Hybrid teamwork,working remote from home,Hybrid Work Revolution

Return to Office

The results from a recent poll of over 150 U.S. CEOs by Chief Executive reveals a startling reason for why many companies are enforcing a return to office. The study indicates that many organizations are struggling to foster strong communication, collaboration, and team bonding in these environments. 

The opinions of CEOs are reinforced by a recently-published academic study by economists from Harvard, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the University of Iowa researching software engineers at a Fortune 500 firm. The scholars found that engineers working in the same building as all their teammates received 23 percent more feedback on their computer code than engineers with distant teammates. Proximity particularly increased feedback to female engineers and young engineers, who were more likely to quit the firm when proximity is lost, showing the value of such feedback for mentoring and career development.

As a result, some companies such as Amazon and Salesforce are pivoting back to traditional in-person work models to address these issues and enhance overall workforce engagement. However, is this retreat to familiar territory the best course of action?

The Siren Call of the Traditional Office Model

The poll found that in an equivalent 2022 survey, conducted in early May, a mere 31% of US businesses functioned on-site. That included those unable to operate remotely due to the nature of their work (such as factories and retail). 

However, this figure experienced a significant increase of nearly 50% in 2023, reaching 46%. As a result, the percentage of hybrid companies dropped from 61% in 2022 to 48% in 2023, while the proportion of entirely remote companies declined from 7% to 5% during the same time frame.

It's no secret that humans are creatures of habit. When faced with challenges in unfamiliar territory, it's all too tempting to return to what we know. That's precisely what's happening with companies grappling with remote and hybrid work models. They find themselves in uncharted waters and, rather than learning to adapt, they're tempted to go back to the cozy confines of the office-centric model.

Yet, retreating to familiar ground means sacrificing many of the benefits that remote and hybrid work arrangements offer. Let's take a closer look at what companies stand to lose if they give in to this siren call.

Giving Up the Hybrid Work Goldmine

The findings are rather unexpected, considering that in 2022, when CEOs were asked if they were content with their chosen work model, 60% of those utilizing remote or hybrid models responded with a “yes.” A barely noticeable 0.5% expressed intentions to revert to in-person work once the pandemic subsided.

Intriguingly, the 2023 survey revealed that a mere 5% of companies operating with remote or hybrid arrangements reported decreased performance due to the shift. So, this begs the question: what happened?

The survey describes how an engineering industry CEO stated that offering flexibility indeed makes it much easier to attract and retain talent. However, he said it also demands more effort from leadership across the organization, including a heightened need for intentional communication, collaborative work distribution, and relationship cultivation. CEOs have reported difficulties in achieving the same degree of engagement and participation from remote employees as they did from their in-office counterparts. And of course, the study of software engineers at a Fortune 500 firm showed the negative impact of remote work on the professional development of junior staff.

Remote and hybrid work arrangements have proven to deliver increased employee productivity, reduced attrition, and access to a global talent market. By going back to the traditional in-person work model, companies are willingly turning their backs on these advantages. It's akin to discovering a goldmine and then deciding to return to panning for gold in a river. Sure, it's familiar, but it's also shortsighted and far less lucrative.

So, what's the solution? How can companies avoid the pitfalls of remote and hybrid work without sacrificing the benefits?

I talk to dozens of leaders each month about these issues, and what I inevitably find is that they try to shoehorn their traditional office-centric models of collaboration into hybrid and remote work. Naturally, they find that the result is weakened culture, collaboration, team bonding, communication, and so on. The solution is not to go back to the traditional office-centric model. 

The solution is to adopt methods of building culture, collaboration, team bonding, communication, etc. that are a good fit for a hybrid environment. Then, you get the best of both worlds. 

And yes, it does take more effort at first, as the engineering industry CEO quoted in the study stated. Just like it takes some effort to adopt any new system and learn new ways of collaborating. But you get a permanent boost to your ability to attract and retain talent, gain access to talent around the globe, boost your productivity, and improve the morale and well-being of your employees permanently - all in exchange for a temporary effort while you’re updating your systems for the new world.

The Cognitive Bias Trap: How Our Brains Sabotage Hybrid Work Success

Unfortunately, a major challenge to getting the best of both worlds is the role of cognitive biases in shaping our decisions and perceptions. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in our thinking that influence our judgment, often leading us to make irrational choices. In the context of hybrid work, two specific cognitive biases stand out as particularly detrimental: status quo bias and functional fixedness.

The status quo bias refers to our tendency to prefer the current state of affairs over change, even when the alternative may be more beneficial. This bias plays a significant role in the reluctance of organizations to fully embrace remote and hybrid work models. Many leaders, influenced by the status quo bias, perceive a return to traditional in-person work as the safest and most familiar course of action. In doing so, they fail to recognize the potential benefits and opportunities of hybrid work arrangements.

To overcome this bias, leaders must actively challenge their assumptions and beliefs about remote and hybrid work. By consciously weighing the pros and cons of various work models and considering the long-term implications, companies can make more informed decisions that embrace innovation and growth.

Functional fixedness is another cognitive bias that hinders our ability to adapt to hybrid work environments. This bias refers to the tendency to see objects or situations only in terms of their traditional use or function. In the context of hybrid work, functional fixedness leads organizations to apply conventional office-centric models to remote and hybrid environments, which ultimately results in weakened culture, collaboration, team bonding, and communication.

To counteract functional fixedness, companies must challenge their assumptions about how work should be done and explore new ways to build culture, foster collaboration, and enhance communication in remote and hybrid settings. This may involve rethinking the structure of meetings, adopting new technology, and investing in training programs designed to help employees and leaders adapt to this new mode of working.

By acknowledging and addressing the influence of cognitive biases like status quo bias and functional fixedness, organizations can make more rational decisions and better adapt to the challenges of remote and hybrid work. Embracing the unique opportunities offered by these new work models requires a willingness to question our assumptions, explore new ideas, and challenge our deeply ingrained biases.

To achieve success in the hybrid work environment, leaders must take a step back and recognize the impact of cognitive biases on their decision-making. By doing so, they can make more informed choices that drive innovation and growth, allowing their organizations to thrive in this ever-evolving landscape.

Embracing the Hybrid Work Model: A New Frontier

The key to success in the hybrid work environment lies in adaptation. Leaders must learn to build a culture, foster collaboration, improve team bonding, and enhance communication in ways that are tailored for remote and hybrid work. It's not about forcing a square peg into a round hole by applying traditional office-centric models to these new environments. Instead, companies must forge new paths that allow them to enjoy the best of both worlds.

1. Create a Hybrid-Friendly Culture

To thrive in a hybrid environment, organizations must intentionally build a hybrid-friendly culture. This means recognizing and celebrating the unique strengths of remote and hybrid work, such as increased flexibility, autonomy, and work-life balance. It's about moving away from the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality and embracing the idea that employees working remotely are just as valuable and connected as their in-office counterparts.

2. Rethink Communication Strategies

Effective communication is the lifeblood of any organization, and it's no different in a hybrid work environment. Companies must adopt communication strategies that foster inclusivity and prevent remote employees from feeling isolated. This may include implementing regular video conferences, creating dedicated channels for team bonding activities, and encouraging frequent check-ins between team members.

3. Leverage Technology for Collaboration

The right tools can make all the difference in fostering collaboration and teamwork in a hybrid environment. Organizations should invest in cutting-edge collaboration software, such as project management tools, video conferencing platforms, and file-sharing systems. These tools can bridge the gap between remote and in-office employees, ensuring that everyone remains connected and engaged, regardless of their physical location.

4. Prioritize Team Bonding and Connection

To maintain a strong sense of camaraderie and belonging, organizations must prioritize team bonding activities, both in-person and virtual. Consider organizing regular team-building events, such as virtual happy hours, online games, or even off-site retreats. By creating opportunities for employees to connect on a personal level, companies can build a sense of unity that transcends the boundaries of the hybrid work model.

5. Invest in Training and Development

One critical aspect of adapting to the hybrid work environment is ensuring that both leaders and employees have the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive. Companies should invest in training programs that focus on remote work best practices, effective communication, and collaboration in a hybrid environment. By equipping their workforce with the right tools, organizations can set the stage for success in this new frontier.

6. Implement Robust Mentoring Programs

To address the challenges described in the Fortune 500 study of software engineers, the kind of “on-the-job training by osmosis” solution that companies typically adopt is far from the only option. Mentoring programs are essential for the professional growth and development of junior staff in a hybrid work environment. By creating structured mentoring initiatives that combine both in-person and virtual elements, organizations can ensure that junior employees receive the guidance and support they need to succeed. These programs should include one-on-one mentoring sessions, group mentoring activities, and opportunities for informal knowledge sharing. A well-designed mentoring program can help bridge the gap between senior and junior staff, fostering a culture of learning and collaboration that drives success in the hybrid workplace.

The Future of Work: Embrace the Change, Reap the Rewards

It's clear that the solution to the challenges presented by remote and hybrid work is not to return to traditional in-person work models. Instead, companies must learn to adapt and embrace the unique opportunities that these new environments offer. By doing so, they can enjoy increased productivity, reduced attrition, and access to a global talent market.

The future of work is here, and it's time for organizations to stop running from it. The wise will adapt, evolving their strategies to create a new normal that leverages the strengths of hybrid work models. By doing so, they'll position themselves for success in an ever-changing business landscape, reaping the rewards that come with embracing the best of both worlds.

Key Take-Away

Remote/hybrid work boosts productivity, talent pool & retention. Leaders must build culture, teamwork & communication. Biases hinder adoption... >Click to tweet

Image credit: fauxels/Pexels

Lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert”by The New York Times, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams, as well as seven other books. His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles in prominent venues such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and Forbes. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.

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