The Surprising Reason Why Many Leaders Are Forcing Employees Back to The Office
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A recent poll of more than 150 U.S. CEOs reveals a startling reason 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. As a result, some companies 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 a 2022 survey, a mere 31% of U.S. 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.
Related: Why Employers Forcing a Return to Office is Leading to More Worker Power and Unionization
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.
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 wellbeing of your employees permanently — all in exchange for a temporary effort while you’re updating your systems for the new world.
Related: You Can’t Return to The Office Without Defeating These Four Major Battles
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.
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 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.
Related: When Office Return Turns Sour: Apple and Twitter’s Struggles Reveal Fractures in Corporate Culture
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 remote-friendly culture
To thrive in a hybrid environment, organizations must intentionally build a remote-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 remote employees 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.
Related: Hybrid Employees Are More Productive at Home — But This is When You Should Ask Them to Come Into The Office
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 remote and 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.