In my previous post, I made the case that we’re thoroughly messing up the effort to get employees to return to the office. Managers are arguing that remote work hurts productivity when there are now plenty of data to show that productivity doesn’t decline (and might even increase).
While managers and employees debate productivity, the real fight is about control. Employees have been able to build work environments that suit their styles, meet their needs, and incorporate their personal lives. So, it’s no surprise that they aren’t keen to give power back to their managers, especially because managers don’t seem to appreciate the magnitude of the sacrifice it will require. They’re offering no better rationale for the return than “because it’s your job!”
The scales are tipped in the remote work direction, and since productivity doesn’t tip the scales, remote work is still winning. Some high-profile CEOs such as Elon Musk, David Solomon, and Bob Iger are putting their fingers on the other side of the scale, telling people to return to the office “or else….”
You won’t be surprised to hear that the threats and ultimatums approach is not good for engagement and that most employees forced against their will to return to the office full-time report that they will search for alternate employment. I’m with them. I’m an office advocate, but even I think requiring five days in the office is ridiculous, short-sighted, and unjustifiable for most knowledge-worker jobs.
So, if claims of enhanced productivity aren’t convincing and threats and consequences aren’t wise, where do we take the return-to-office conversation? I think the answer is to community.
We’re Missing the Value of Community
In creating our remote work routines—honing our schedules, workspaces, and Zoom backgrounds—we’ve created tighter and tighter cocoons around ourselves. But, unfortunately, we’ve disconnected from our teammates, coworkers, and neighbors in the process. Research is only starting to measure the cost of this shift, but the early signs are alarming.
Strong Ties are Weakening
At the start of the pandemic, many employees counted on their teammates to help them endure a highly stressful time. I saw wonderful examples where remote coworkers accommodated each other when personal responsibilities interrupted work tasks. Many more people took time at the start of their video meetings to ask, “how are you?” and then listen empathetically to answers that were often emotionally fraught. It was an impressive display of the value of a strong team, and it showed in an 8% increase in belonging indices in 2020.
Three years later, those strong teams have weakened. The players have changed. I’ve worked with many teams where the members have never met each other in person. They don’t know much about one another other than what they glean from a few hours of Zoom calls each week. There isn’t the same “got your back” feeling. Relationships are more transactional, trust is eroding, and we’re paying the price of isolation.
It’s not just my hunch. Gallup’s research shows that fewer employees report having a best friend at work, which has been demonstrated over decades of research to predict many important outcomes for the individual and the business. Glint’s 2021 study showed that disconnection from colleagues was the most cited cause of burnout, and their 2022 research shows that 35% of employees who work in a hybrid model feel even less connected to their teammates than they did in 2021.
We need to share this research. We need to show how isolation is affecting mental health. We need to make changes to allow individuals more control of their environment. We need to revamp our meetings and office days. We need to help individuals overcome the social anxieties built up over three years. We need to help them reconnect with their colleagues.
Teams Are in Trouble
Remote work hasn’t just impacted us as individuals; we also see a hit to team trust. Not being physically together robs us of many opportunities for communication, and we miss essential content and context. I wrote about the importance of mutual knowledge and the unflattering judgments we make without it here. (The article includes a link to exercises I created to help you bolster mutual knowledge on your team.)
Teams will feel the impact of waning trust in myriad ways. Trust predicts team performance because it supports effective communication, productive conflict, creative contributions, willingness to seek and offer help and to move beyond a strict economic relationship toward proactively contributing to the team’s success. Trust makes it safe to be vulnerable in ways that contribute to a more productive, innovative, and efficient team.
As long as we measure people’s performance based on how many lines of code they write or how many reports they produce, we’ve got no leg to stand on in encouraging them back to the office. They will write more code if you leave them be.
Only once we define people’s roles as contributors to healthy, productive teams with clearly articulated expectations for responsibilities beyond their individual tasks (such as supporting people who are developing, contributing to others’ ideas, and identifying risks and assumptions in plans) will we have the data to justify returning to the office. The ball is in management’s court.
Weak Ties are Missing
Eroding our strong ties will profoundly affect our individual quality of life, career development, and team performance, but strong ties aren’t all that’s at stake. Weak ties—those casual acquaintances who are the background performers in our lives—are being lost rapidly.
Gillian Sandstrom estimates that in pre-pandemic times, we interacted with between 11 and 16 casual acquaintances like the barista, security guard, or receptionist each day. When we work remotely, we drastically reduce the number of interactions we have with our weak ties. Sandstrom’s research shows that these interactions make us happier, helping our emotional and social well-being.
When Bob from Sesame Street sang about the people in your neighborhood, he was on to something. We’re better off being a part of something.
Now pivot your perspective and think about how many people in your neighborhood (or your city’s downtown) are unemployed or underemployed because you don’t go to the office. How many small businesses are suffering? How many students can’t find a job to pay for their tuition because cafes and restaurants are half-full? How many actors, artists, and musicians can’t make ends meet without the serving jobs that get them from gig to gig? What happens to your city if the downtown hollows out?
In my city, foot traffic downtown is down 46% from pre-pandemic levels. Interestingly, this contrasts with increased foot traffic in smaller cities and towns. Recent surveys show that the resistance to returning to the office is more of a big-city phenomenon. But what does the world look like if Toronto, New York, San Francisco, and London have hollow centers? Is that what we want?
And if not, are we hoping that other people will leave their comfy cocoons and keep our cities vibrant and healthy so that we don’t have to?
Balancing Control and Community
Being a part of a healthy community, whether that’s a team, an organization, or a city, requires trade-offs, compromises, and sometimes discomfort. It’s not as easy as hiving yourself off in your home office. It means standing beside a stinky person on the subway, tolerating distractions and close talkers, or suffering micro-aggressions from ignorant or awful people.
Being a part of a community requires you to put yourself out there and be vulnerable in ways big and small. But we are wired for connection, and the longer we ignore that fact, the more lonely, isolated, unwell, and entrenched we’ll become.
If most of us don’t return to the office a few days a week, we will end up with the communities we deserve. I suspect we won’t like what we become.
More on This: Return-to-Office Miniseries
We are botching the return-to-office transition. We need to talk less about individual productivity and talk more about the obligation to contribute to healthy teams and organizations. But leaders, the price of admission to that conversation is to give up some control so employees can optimize their experience and to reset how the workweek is used so we have less overflow into personal time.
 Employee Well-Being Report (2022) – Glint
 Challenges and barriers in virtual teams: a literature review – Sarah Morrison-Smith & Jamie Ruiz | SN Applied Sciences