Science

We’re Fumbling the Return to Physical Offices


Facing strong employee resistance and turnover, Google recently backtracked from its plan to force all employees to return back to the office and allowed many to work remotely. Apple’s plan to force its staff back to the office has caused many to leave Apple and led to substantial internal opposition.

Why are these and so many other companies forcing employees to return to the office? They must know about the extensive, in-depth research surveys from early spring 2021 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) that asked thousands of employees about their preferences on ending remote work.

All of the surveys revealed strong preferences for working from home post pandemic at least half the time for over three-quarters of all respondents. A quarter to a third of all respondents desired full-time remote work permanently. From 40 to 55 percent of respondents said they’d quit without permanent remote options for at least half the work week; of these, many would leave if not permitted fully remote work. Minority employees expressed an especially strong preference for remote work to escape in-office discrimination.

Yet many employers intend to force their employees who can easily work remotely back to the office for much or all of the workweek.

Business leaders frequently proclaim that “people are our most important resource.” Yet those who are resistant to permitting telework are not living by that principle. Instead, they’re doing what they feel comfortable with, even if it devastates employee morale, engagement and productivity, and seriously undercuts retention and recruitment, as well as harming diversity and inclusion. In the end, their behavior is a major threat to the bottom line.

The problem has to do with their gut reactions and comfort with office work, rather than a look at the bottom line. They aren’t even gathering good data by doing effective surveys; they’re simply going based on what the leaders feel is the right thing to do. 

Why are these executives resistant to the seemingly obvious solution: a hybrid model for most, with full-time permanent remote work for those who both want it and show high effectiveness and productivity? This is because of cognitive biases, which are mental blind spots that lead to poor strategic and financial decision-making. Fortunately, by understanding these cognitive biases and taking research-based steps to address them, we can make the best decisions.

WHY THE WARINESS ABOUT REMOTE WORK?

After interviewing 61 mid-level and senior leaders on this question in 12 companies for which I helped develop a strategic approach to transitioning back to the office, I found that a large number of leaders wanted to return to what they saw as “normal” work life. By that, they meant turning back the clock to January 2020, before the pandemic.

Another key concern for many involved personal discomfort. They liked the feel of a full, buzzing office. They preferred to be surrounded by others when they work.

Other reasons involve challenges specifically related to remote work. They listed deteriorating company culture and growing work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue. Others cited a rise in team conflicts and challenges in virtual collaboration and communication. A final category of concerns relates to a lack of accountability and effective evaluation of employees.

What cognitive biases lead to these dangerous errors of judgment? Many people fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things. 

Another influence stems from managers’ personal discomfort with work from home. They spent their career surrounded by other people. They want to resume regularly walking the floors, surrounded by the energy of a staff hard at work. They’re falling for the anchoring bias. This mental blind spot causes us to feel anchored to our initial experiences and information. The evidence that work from home functions well for the vast majority doesn’t cause them to shift their perspective in any significant manner. The confirmation bias offers an important explanation for this seeming incongruity. Our minds are skilled at ignoring information that contradicts our beliefs, and at looking only for information that confirms them.

In fact, some leaders tell me they don’t want to do surveys because they feel confident that the large majority of their employees would rather work at the office than at home. They wave aside the fact that the large-scale public surveys show the opposite. For instance, one of the major complaints by Apple employees is a failure to do effective surveys and listen to employees.

In the refusal to do surveys, the confirmation bias is compounded by another cognitive bias, called the false consensus effect. This mental blind spot leads us to envision other people in our in-group—such as those employed at our company—as being much more like ourselves in their beliefs than is the actual case.

What about the specific challenges these resistant leaders brought up related to working from home, ranging from burnout to deteriorating culture and so on? Further inquiry on each problem revealed that the leaders have never addressed these work-from-home problems strategically. They transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. Perceiving this shift as a very brief emergency, they focused (naturally and appropriately) on accomplishing the necessary tasks of the organization. They ignored the social and emotional glue that truly holds companies together, motivates employees and protects against burnout.

That speaks to a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of how systems should function, we ignore other possible functions, uses and behaviors. We do this even if these new functions, uses and behaviors offer a better fit for a changed situation and would address our problems better.

The postpandemic office will require the realignment of employer-employee expectations. Leaders need to use research-based strategies to overcome the gut reactions that cause them to fall victim to mental blind spots. Only by doing so can they seize the competitive advantage from using their most important resource effectively to maximize retention, recruitment, morale, productivity, workplace culture and thus the bottom line.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American


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