The Return to the Office Is Tricky
Here are some things to consider when asking your employees to come back to the office
Some might argue that return-to-work initiatives are misguided. It’s bad enough that it took government-mandated lockdowns for so many of you to even consider the prospect of letting employees work from home in the first place—but now that we’ve gotten a taste of remote working, we don’t want to go back. We already know that the sky won’t fall if we don’t return to the office. The monkey is out of the bottle, man.
I am not here to make the case that you should close your office and make everyone work remotely full-time. Keypoint Intelligence’s Future of Office Survey found that 43% of workers prefer working in the office, so you’d be alienating a sizable chunk of your workforce if you did close everything down. But that same survey found that 57% of respondents said they’d like to work from home at least part of the time after the pandemic has subsided. In forcing everyone back full-time (or even part-time), you’re alienating and annoying an even larger segment of your employees in the middle of a period dubbed the “Great Resignation”.
My proposal is simple: Invite everyone back to the office, sure, but give them the option to choose where and when they want to work. Don’t put any restrictions on it by forcing workers to come in for a specific number of days or restricting which days they can stay home. This appeases everyone.
Before I get into why your policy is deluded, I want to make something clear: I hate working from home. It’s dumb, I have trouble focusing (because I have the cutest cat on the planet), and, for whatever reason, it’s very difficult for me to take work seriously when I am at home. So, I don’t think your policy is misguided because I want to work from home. It’s bad because I care about results, and in forcing folks to work in the office when they want to work from home—especially when they can do the job at home—we’re not going to get the best possible results.
Just because working from home doesn’t work for me (or you, dear decision-making reader), that doesn’t mean that working from home doesn’t work for everyone. There are plenty of reasons why workers don’t want to return to the office. At home, they enjoy a better home/work-life balance, less stress, and increased productivity.
Let’s talk about it.
We Don’t Want to Return to the Office Because Commuting Sucks
Just getting to work is time consuming and stressful. According to the US Census, the average American spent 27.6 minutes commuting to work one way—or nearly an hour every day. That’s almost five hours a week, one day a month, or 10 days a year worth of unpaid time workers sacrifice to employers. One study found that “an additional 20 minutes of commuting per day has the same negative effect on job satisfaction as receiving a 19% pay cut.” Another study concluded that longer commutes are associated with higher instances of absenteeism and decreases employee productivity overall.
Sitting in traffic or on a crowded train or bus isn’t just an enormous waste of time—it’s also bad for our physical and mental health. According to Time magazine, more time spent commuting is associated with increased blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. It also has a negative impact on our quality of sleep and contributes to achy backs (as if sitting in an office chair for eight or more hours a day wasn’t bad enough). Longer commutes are also associated with higher rates of divorce and can have a negative impact on emotional wellbeing of worker's children.
Why should employees have to endure any of this when commuting is unnecessary? What possible gains from having everyone in the office can negate the health and wellbeing of employees? How can employers claim to take their employees’ health and wellbeing seriously, and then try to justify forcing workers to endure the unhealthy, sacrificial ritual of commuting?
We Don’t Want to Return to the Office Because We’re More Productive at Home
Keypoint Intelligence's Future of Office Survey found that 45% of employees felt that they would be more productive working from home rather than at the office. The increased productivity is easy to explain. While managers might think the home is full of distractions, the office can also be an unnavigable minefield of disturbances. It’s not as if the potential distractions that you’d encounter at home are non-existent in the office. Is there really a difference between your child/spouse/cat or a coworker eating up to 20 minutes of your time?
And it’s not like we are unable to be productive without the boss leaning over our shoulder. I can spend as much time on Reddit or stream a few seasons of King of the Hill in the office as I do at home—in fact, it’s easier in the office because I have an additional monitor and a better internet connection.
Final Thoughts on Returning to Work
There are plenty of reasons why management and ownership want their employees back in the office. Some want employees in the office because they don’t want to pay rent on a vacant office. Others want them back because they feel employees cannot possibly be productive unless management is there to oversee it. Others insist you come back simply because “that’s how it always has been”—if they had to spend a few decades working in the office, then so should you.
These are all bogus reasons, of course.
Your lease is signed already. That money is already budgeted and as good as spent, regardless of where your employees work. If anything, you should look at an open remote work policy to save money in the future. The next time you have to sign a lease, you can do so at a lower price, as your spatial requirements will shrink. Your employees already proved that they could work from home without being less productive, as evidenced by the way your business survived (and maybe even profited) during a pandemic.
And just because something worked in the past, that doesn’t mean it will continue to work in the future (or that other methods wouldn’t have also worked in the past). And just because you had to endure working one way, that doesn’t mean that your employees should too. It’s like arguing that we should take seatbelts out of cars because it would be unfair to those who have perished in car accidents before seatbelts were invented.