They Won't Come Back to the Office

They Won’t Come Back to the Office

December 28, 2021
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One of my clients, Larry (not his real name), is dealing with a post-pandemic dilemma. The company he works for— let’s call it Alpha, Inc.— is a big, multinational infrastructure company.  He’s the head of a substantial engineering portion of the company, and so has hundreds of developers and engineers reporting to him.

For the duration of the pandemic, Larry and his whole team have been working remotely.

The company is a bit traditional. They only grudgingly went remote. At heart, the top leadership had no faith that employees could stay productive from home. That isn’t terribly unusual. Although fast-growing start-ups and technology-focused organizations have embraced remote work, they’ve done so of necessity. An inadequate supply of skilled candidates made them try expanding their talent pool beyond local areas.

But most large company leaders think more like Alpha. And they have not changed their minds about how dangerous remote work can be. It’s been controversial, and even some of the most forward-looking businesses — like Facebook and Yahoo— have periodically shunned it.

It’s easy to understand the reluctance about employees working from home. Intuitively, it seems obvious that employees would slack off without supervision.

But those suspicions have turned out to be untrue. When people work from home they are usually more productive than in the office– even to their own detriment.

Nonetheless, Alpha wants people back in the office. They believe that the benefits of being together in real life outweigh the gains in employee convenience and high productivity when employees are remote. Plus, maybe they still hold on to their belief that if employees are out of sight, they may be up to no good.

Unlike the start-ups I usually work with, Alpha is less agile. It is too big to accommodate ongoing conversations between leaders and non-leaders. While Alpha strives to be inclusive and collaborative, the size and structure doesn’t support it. Like so many legacy businesses, it has a more traditional command and control structure.

This sets the stage for Larry’s dilemma. The company wants people back at HQ. But a noteworthy percentage of his team-members have flatly refused to come back.  Larry is trying to figure out how to square what his bosses are demanding, with his employees’ reactions.

The stakes are high. Key team-members have left for new jobs at companies that will accommodate full-time remote work. The team is struggling to fulfill important initiatives and Larry is finding it difficult to replace those skilled engineers.

He’s given as much feedback to his C-suite bosses as he can.  And to their credit, the bosses have flexed. They have offered a mix of at-home and in-office work including 4 days remote-1 day in office schedules. Like the rest of us, they simply want to return to their own normal.

No one expected employees to push back so aggressively against simply returning to work.

Employees have been working from home now for 18 months or even two years. They like it.  When Larry delivered the news that the office had reopened and they needed to return, they basically said NO.

Unlike in the “before days’, employees have leverage. For engineers, they really can get another job—even a higher paying one. They know it. So, when they refuse to do something, they hold the cards.

It’s difficult to hire super highly skilled engineers right now. Although that’s not entirely new, it has reached a significant level of asymmetry between employer and candidate leverage.

Alpha is not alone in much of its workforce wanting to stay home. In November of 2021, 54% of New York City employees were still remote. It’s not just engineers either. Marketing, sales, product teams —a percentage of every functional area wants to stay home. So, what’s the company supposed to do?

From an employee’s standpoint it is a lot more comfortable to work from home. And for engineers, their work is often a solitary role. So they feel as though they are not missing anything.

To their credit, Alpha’s leadership took Larry’s concerns to heart. They shared their preference that everyone come in every day –but were willing to allow some people to be hybrid, come in once a week or less. Despite their concessions, the same people who didn’t want to leave home daily also refused to come in even periodically.  The negotiation continued with the company making ever greater concessions. Three days a month, one day and month, once a quarter. Don’t you want to meet your colleagues? Maybe we’ll have a happy hour together or something like that?

Nothing assuaged the employees’ refusal.

Now, you and I may know that if you never go to the office, you lose out on a bunch of stuff. But the engineers are probably not really thinking about that. Those of us who have been in the workplace quite a long know that when you’re in the office, you gain a bunch of advantages over being remote.

If you’ve done both then you know:  Remote employees are essentially invisible. [click to tweet].  

They become commoditized or otherwise reduced solely to the skills that they sell. For those in the office those remote workers become transaction partners, rarely full human beings with all of the complexity that entails.

Opportunities, relationships, potential promotions —they’re all more available to in-office employees. Its obvious why.

All of us have recency bias. Whoever we saw yesterday or last week comes to mind easily.  And it was the people in the office we saw most recently. Those at home less so.

When people think about who to include, who should be at the table, who’s promotable, it’s those they interact with most.  In the office.

Perhaps the team of engineers at Alpha skews younger.  Or maybe they figure they’ll just be writing code forever, and they don’t care about rising in the organization. But all of us should think not just about today but about future us.  That is true for the remote employees too. While it may seem hard to believe, future us is someone else; he or she is NOT the self we know today.  We know that person only partially. But we can anticipate. And while a present-day employee may opt for the comfort of home, the future version of that same employee likely would like to have been promoted or discovered.

You could say that Larry’s lost team-members are choosing comfort over context.  You are more visible in the context of physical proximity and there’s a lot of opportunity when you’re present. The context at home is one of individualism. It’s anatomized world where you are working and lightly tethered to an outside employer. In the office, the context is different. It is communal. In the context of a community within a shared office space there are different opportunities.  Those opportunities include upward mobility, a chance of moving sideways or for somebody to discover a secret genius that you have.

If you’re somebody who’s opting for comfort over community context, give this some thought. And if you’re an employer dealing with this, maybe have the managers and the directors in that department start a conversation with their teams about the contrast in possible futures.

If Larry’s team were in that conversation, maybe one or two would make a different choice.

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