Are you reluctant to return to the office? Is your team?
I know many people who are. One of them is helping to craft their company’s Return to Office program. (I think it’s great that the company has an office-skeptic on the committee because there are plenty of office-skeptics in the workforce, and they need representation.)
So, how much resistance is there to returning to the office? Will it fade over time, or is the old office model permanently doomed?
Magnitude of the Problem
Before I get into the reasons for resistance and the likelihood that it will persist, it’s worth taking a moment to assess the size of the problem.
There are a variety of studies (of varying quality) that gauge anti-office sentiment. For example, a Flexjobs survey of 2,100 people who worked remotely during the pandemic found that 65% wanted to remain fully remote. A recent Pew survey shows a lower percentage, closer to 60%, who want to work remotely, but not necessarily five days a week.
Research by James R Bailey published in Fast Company shows that resistance to office-based work is strongest among younger workers and weakest among Gen Xers. But, interestingly, attitudes about the office among Baby Boomers are mixed.
And there’s also the much-ballyhooed finding that the higher you go in an organization, the more likely you will be racing back to the office. Three-quarters of executives want to work from the office the majority of the week. (It’s easy to want to return to a reserved parking spot, mahogany desk, and doting assistant. Am I too cynical?!?)
Ok… back to the point. No matter how you slice it, the conclusion is that the resistance to returning to the office is significant, the gap in attitudes between leaders and employees is large, and we’d better be taking both seriously.
But how much of it will pass, and which aspects are here to stay?
Passing Resistance to Returning to the Office
I suspect that a reasonable portion of the foot-dragging on returning to the office will fade over the next six months. Here are some reasons why I believe that:
Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest, while bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. Do you remember that law of physics? I think it’s a psychological phenomenon as well. If you think back to March 2020, you’ll recall the whiplash we all got at going from the flat-out, frenetic pace of our office life back then to being locked into our homes—grounded. It was a painful screeching halt, and many of us crashed in the process. Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. But we’ve adapted.
Now the inertia is working in the opposite direction. We’re accustomed to working from home, using our commute time for more exercise, family bonding, or accomplishing things on our to-do lists. We’re comfy in our soft pants and slippers. We like the efficiency of switching from one meeting to the next with the click of a button. So, the thought of booting the system back into office mode is aversive for many. We’re bodies at rest right now.
Once we get back, many of us will remember the good parts of being in the office. We’ll enjoy getting into nicer clothes. We’ll get used to having someone in a food court make us a sandwich again. Then, the inertia will switch directions.
Another huge problem is that we’ve lost the infrastructure we relied on to allow us to work from an office. So many parents of school-aged children haven’t needed before and afterschool care, and trying to find new solutions for that will take a while.
Our hard pants don’t fit.
We went down to one car in the family and don’t have an easy way to get to the office.
We secretly moved to Bora Bora. (If you did this, please write to me. I LOVE you!)
It’s going to take a while to get that stuff sorted and rebuild the infrastructure of office life. But it will come back. The shuttered delis under office towers will re-open. You’ll resolve your childcare situation. You’ll find a new, 2022-appropriate version of office wear.
For some employees, the resistance to returning to the office comes from a fear that it’s still not safe. If you are immunocompromised, pregnant, or caring for a vulnerable family member, returning to an office full of close talkers who aren’t wearing masks is a constant threat to your safety. Over time, our protection from Covid will increase, and we will think of it more like the seasonal flu. As someone who made it 2.5 years and just got Covid this week, I can confidently say that we’re NOT there yet!!! But we’ll get there.
Those are just some of the reasons, which to me are very legitimate, why people are resisting a return to the office. With a little empathy and flexibility, I expect these to fade as people start returning a couple of days a week and get their sea legs back.
Which Problems with Office Work are Here to Stay?
Now for the other side of the story. I believe there are sources of resistance that aren’t going away. Ever. They are inherent downsides to working in an office.
In the Flexjobs survey, the number one reason for the desire to continue with remote work was to avoid the commute. This was given as the #1 reason by a whopping 84% of respondents (followed closely by the cost savings cited by 75%). Of course, commuting has always been brutal, but with gas prices at record highs, every trip to the pumps is another kick in the teeth.
Comfort and Control
I’ve been working from home for seven years now. I love it. High on my list of perks is that I control the thermostat. I spent 17 years freezing my butt off in offices (well…sadly, that is not literally true.) Did you know that research supports the importance of a warmer room if you want women to be at their best? Seriously, it makes a massive difference that I’m no longer distracted by my brain telling me I might freeze to death any minute!
Ok, I know that’s a minor thing, but a bunch of minor things adds up to many of us being more comfortable at home.
If you’re working from home, it’s easy to pop out and pick up the kids from school in the time most people take for a coffee break. If you’re in the office, not so much. If you’re working from home, you can let the cable guy in without taking five hours off to wait for them. If you’re working from home, you can empty the dishwasher on a break (rather than filling the dishwasher with the dirty cups your childish, selfish coworkers insist on leaving in the sink!!! I had forgotten about how much that drives me around the bend!)
Now that the pandemic puppies are housebroken, most of us can create a home office environment with few distractions. No chatty Cathy’s perching a butt cheek on our desks and talking our ears off. No getting sucked into a juicy conversation, you overhear from the other side of the room. No being taken off task by the boss showing a guest around.
If you’ve managed to stem the self-inflicted wounds created by checking your email every three minutes or responding to each Slack comment, you’ve probably got your productivity to a pretty nice spot by now. But, unfortunately, offices are naturally distracting places. Especially our modern open-office plans. That’s not going to change, and if workloads keep increasing, the resentment toward anything that decreases our productivity will likely escalate.
Where From Here?
Get the resistance in the open. Talk about it. Acknowledge both sides of the issue. Be empathetic about the hump many need to get over during the first few weeks back in the office. Be open to flexible arrangements that allow employees to get the best aspects of the office for part of the week and the best of working remotely the other part. If you do that, I suspect little resistance will be left six months from now.
For Elon Musk, David Solomon, and the others that have decided to ignore and invalidate the resistance, well…good luck. You’ll be providing fascinating data for Organizational Psychology nerds like me.