Here’s what really is based on evidence
The return-to-office debate continues – people are demanding flexibility, they are too quick to threaten when they have to return full-time, and companies are increasingly emphasizing in-person presence. People want hybrid and remote work, and companies are struggling to maintain culture and performance and retain great talent. Unfortunately, there is a constant stream of misinformation standing in the way of making good decisions about new work models and the role of the workplace.
But data can help. Looking at the headlines and soundbytes, there is good evidence that can separate truth from fiction and myth from reality.
8 myths – and the realities
#1 – People don’t want to come back
It’s true that many people don’t want to go back to their old office (think mazes of gray cubes), and many people don’t want to go back to a model where they work in the office on Mondays from 8 to 5 Fridays.
In reality, however, people like to come back to the office for some time every week or month. Statistically, people are happier when they have a sense of connection with others and a purpose. People have an instinct to matter—and work and the workplace provide an opportunity to contribute skills, talents, and abilities. The office also provides visibility to others and serves as a reminder of how work connects to that of colleagues, clients and the company’s larger mission.
#2 – Tech people don’t want to come back
Tech workers get a lot of attention because they make up such a large percentage of the workforce. Tech is the biggest driver of the US economy, second only to healthcare, and tech workers make up 7.9% of the US workforce. They are young and well paid, 46% are under 40 and earn on average 85% more than other workers.
But contrary to popular belief, tech workers don’t want to work in their basements and never want to leave their homes. According to a study by Eden, they definitely want flexibility and prefer to be able to work remotely at times, but not always. In fact, 34% prefer to work full-time in an office. And tech workers say when they’re away from the office too much, they miss community and camaraderie (44%), have communication difficulties (35%), and miss opportunities for mentorship (26%).
#3 – Gen Z doesn’t want to come back
Generation Z is also in focus. As they join the workforce, they bring new ideas, new energy and represent the future of work. But they too are perceived as wanting to work from home the rest of the time. The reality, however, is that they crave connections, mentorship, and the career growth that comes from building social capital and ensuring visibility.
Anecdotally, executives report that some Gen Z don’t want to consider work where there’s no way to get into an office. Young employees suffer from loneliness and isolation, realizing that their mental health and even career advancement is linked to meaningful relationships with mentors, leaders and peers.
Additionally, research from LiveCareer and Oyster tells an interesting story about Gen Z preferences. A large proportion (69%) of the youngest generation would like flexibility in terms of when, where and how they work, but rate according to the Oyster survey They also consider the opportunity for career development as the most important attribute of the job – something that being present in the office gives them. Additionally, in the LiveCareer survey, 44% of Gen Z wanted job security—also related to being on the proverbial radar screen and building relationships with those who make the decisions about pay, retention, firing, and promotions.
#4 – Face to face doesn’t matter
It’s a myth that work is equal if there isn’t a face-to-face element. Of course, people can successfully work remotely, and the best thing about hybrid is a both-and, where people have time to work both outside the office and inside the office.
But face-to-face communication is still important and makes work less transactional and more meaningful. That’s how we make friends (at work), according to new relationship research from Fisherman’s Friend and famed British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. And having a best friend at work contributes to better job satisfaction, fulfillment, bonding, and mental health.
Additionally, a new MIT study examining the impact of face-to-face interactions and knowledge flow found that people who had more face-to-face interactions and meetings tended to be more effective at work. Specifically, workers in Silicon Valley who interacted in person received significantly more patent citations — a clear measure of innovation, results, and professional prestige. The study found that if face-to-face meetings were reduced by 25%, patent citations would in turn be reduced by 8%.
#5 – Productivity will not be affected
Many companies have reported record levels of productivity in recent years, but it’s also necessary to consider the larger issue of performance. Some companies are producing more, but they’ve also seen record attrition and a drop in engagement and innovation — which have been costly trade-offs.
In fact, productivity evidence suggests that some jobs can certainly be done alone, remotely, or remotely. Research from Maastricht University and Erasmus University found that online efforts were satisfying when people were doing routine or repetitive work. But when the work was more complex, more collaborative, or required problem-solving or speed, face-to-face was a better way to work.
Another study in the Labor Economics Journal found that people tended to do better when they worked with others who were doing well. There was a positive spillover effect based on the emotional contagion of rolling up sleeves, sharing common goals and catching the energy of others united in one task.
#6 – Career advancement will not be hampered
Many companies are taking measures to create more equity in job development and pay development. They want to make sure people aren’t disadvantaged in their careers when they work from home – and that’s great. In companies that are all remote, this is easier to do. But if organizations are honest, it will be difficult to fully appreciate when there is an opportunity to be together in person.
People tend to form relationships more easily because of closeness. Seeing someone usually fosters familiarity, acceptance, and a sense of trust. These can also be built remotely, but the nature of human interaction means they will be developed faster and more deeply when face-to-face interactions are possible.
Another thing to keep an eye on is engagement. Research from the Association for Psychological Science found that engagement, satisfaction, and productivity are correlated and tend to reinforce each other. When you are more engaged, you tend to be happier and more productive at work. And when you’re more productive, you tend to be happier and more engaged. Coming to the office can help avoid the distractions of home or the limitations of technology and increase engagement, job satisfaction, and productivity. All of this bodes well for being noticed for great accomplishments and increasing your credibility and career over time.
#7 – The office doesn’t need to change
There are many myths about the office – that it doesn’t have to change. Or that people do all their focused work at home and just need a collaborative clubhouse environment at the office.
In reality, work has changed and the office needs to change too. The office must earn the commute. Not everyone has the right circumstances to focus at home. Additionally, work tends to move from being one-on-one to being collaborative, so it’s unrealistic to think that all of your focused work can be done at home on Mondays while your collaborative work is done at the office on Tuesdays. Offices need to provide places where people can focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and relax.
People need choices about where, when and how they work. And greater choices are scientifically correlated with greater engagement, satisfaction, achievement, and happiness. But people also need to be able to choose an office that inspires them, connects them with colleagues and leaders, and enables them to do their best work.
#8 – Businesses shouldn’t tell people what to do
Many organizations resist setting firm policies about when, where, and how employees should return to the office because they don’t want to upset employees or lose them to another company. But that can actually work to the detriment of businesses — and less rewarding for people, too. People want to work for an organization where they are valued and they want to know that their contribution counts. When companies don’t understand how they need and value employee input, they miss an opportunity to empower and recognize people and drive engagement. Giving people choices is smart—good for people’s well-being and performance, and for business results. But it’s also a good idea to have clear expectations.
Additionally, every day is a potential decision point when it comes to when, where and how to work when people don’t have guardrails about whether to go to the office. Everyday life requires planning and coordinating with teammates about who will be in the office and whether it’s worth leaving the house. A practice in which companies set guard rails is better. People may be working from home on Mondays and Fridays, but they are asked to be in the office Tuesday through Thursday. Or maybe heads of departments that work closely together can set up two days a week when people from those departments are in the office together. Of course, people still have flexibility for an appointment here or there, but generally people know what to expect and can reduce the friction of constant orchestration for work location.
The work landscape is changing fundamentally and the future is rosy for new work and workplace models. The opportunity to reinvent and rethink work will be hugely rewarding for both employees and companies. But success requires intentionality—a balance between a great employee experience and clear expectations. And create places where people want to show up and do their best.