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Why Are So Many People Reluctant To Return To The Office?

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 2, 2021

Six psychological reasons

Although many people are eager to return to the office, there appears to be a reluctance to do so. For example, recent data shows that “44% of people currently working from home want to continue working remotely because it suits them; 39% would prefer to return to the office; and 17% want to keep working remotely because of coronavirus”

For decades, psychological research has highlighted some of the key variables that make workers thrive, as well as those that significantly impact the probability that someone will be engaged, productive, and happy with their careers (or not).

Although people are different, and their circumstances are unique, it is likely that some of these factors explain their preference for avoiding a return to the office:

(1)  Autonomy: We all enjoy work more when we are not micromanaged, oppressed, or constrained by a strict or rigid set of rules and parameters. The less freedom and autonomy you have at work, the less you will be able to express your curiosity and creativity. While the pandemic severely restricted our autonomy by confining us to our homes and turning every day like into an endless marathon of virtual meetings, as we began to adjust and the virus became contained, we enjoyed more independence, and were able to structure our own work according to our preferred personal parameters: adapting work to our life rather than our life to work. Now that the hardest part appears to be over, we should not expect people to want to return to the “old” normal, but rather to expect an evolution of work that factors in their new life routine and respects what they have built and redesigned during this challenging year and a half. Since everyone will be in a different situation, the best we can do is give them autonomy, and treat them as responsible adults and assume that they will relish a sense of ownership over their lives and careers. Giving them the option to come to the office when they feel the need is obviously a plus, but forcing people in will likely backfire.

(2)  Productivity: The last 18-months have confirmed what many people knew even before the pandemic, namely that it is perfectly possible to be as productive working from home, if not more. Productivity is output divided by input, so simply by saving the time (for many, hours) spent on commuting, pointless in-person meetings, and impression management (see also point 5), your productivity should go up even if your output stays the same. This explains why working from anywhere (WFA) during pandemic lockdowns has not resulted in a productivity decrease, even though it came with the extra burden of home schooling, health anxieties, precarious internet speed, and relationship challenges. In that sense, if you remove the actual contextual challenges of the pandemic but retain the beneficial aspects of WFA, we should expect even bigger advantages, not least if people are actually choosing to work remotely rather than being forced to. Consider that the pre-pandemic literature on the wide benefits of teleworking consistent mainly of people who opted into WFA, so you can expect productivity to be higher in this group than in people who are forced to do so, often with no training and inadequate resources.

(3)  Bad bosses: Many bosses have little talent for leadership, which is why if you google “my boss is…” the autocomplete options will not say “transformational”, “amazing”, or “an incredible source of wisdom and inspiration”, but, well… the opposite. As I have written in “Why do so many incompetent men become leaders (and how to fix it)?”, the most common problems people experience at work are all connected with bad management: failure to find work meaningful, disengaging and alienating jobs, no clear feedback or direction to understand and improve their performance, few opportunities to develop their potential, and so on. So, before the pandemic, we had the incompetent leadership epidemic, and while the pandemic has not extinguished bad bosses, it has significantly reduced the time people need to spend in the company of their managers. In many instanced, this may explain the boost in engagement levels. Just like people are more engaged when they work for themselves (and they ditch their bosses), for many people work is more pleasant when they don’t have to see their bosses, even if they still get a 2D version of them via Zoom or Teams. So, perhaps the best way to lure people into the office is to improve the quality of their bosses. By the same token, I would expect that those who really want to go back in, and opt-in to regroup with their bosses in person, are probably working for a competent boss (and yet, I would also guess that those bosses are least likely to force people into the office).

(4)  Trust: Many people feel that they are mostly called back to the office because managers don’t trust them enough. That if they don’t see what they are doing, or where they are, they may assume that they are not working. This is ironic since the office is the best place to manage impressions and fake performance: it is a lot harder to pretend to work when nobody is watching. It also highlights an unwillingness – or inability – in managers to evaluate what people actually contribute, which makes everything else questionable: if you can’t set clear measurable targets to your employees, how will you give them feedback, how will they know whether they are doing well or not, and how will you justify your performance evaluations? This is why for the most part of modern history there was a hidden premium for those who parked their cars before the boss arrives and where still parked in the office parking lot when their bosses left. In fact, the same rule applies to managers, which is why bosses may want employees back in: so that they can pretend to work for them? Mussolini famously left his office light on during the weekends so when people walked by it they would say “look at our leader, working hard for his people even weekends”. If the difference between working hard and hardly working is hard to tell, that is not because people cannot be trusted to actually do their job, but because their bosses cannot be trusted to allocate and manage their work properly. Trust is actually less important than we think: if you give people clear and relevant tasks, with the necessary instructions, resources, and incentives to achieve them, you can just let them get on with it and see what they deliver. For sure, it is not where you are but what you do that matters, and long before the pandemic it was clear that for many people work was not the best place to get work done. Managers should avoid behaving like a jealous boyfriend or girlfriend, constantly checking on their partner and being suspicious of them, which is more likely to create than stop infidelity. If you trust that your people want to be here, then give them the space to do their work. It’s performance that counts rather than number of hours at work.

(5)  Toxic politics: In any job, organization, and industry, there has always been a gap between individuals’ performance and their success. This is why if you ask people in any organization whether those at the top are the best, they will not be short of examples to convince you that the answer is “no”. The gap between performance and success is largely a function of toxic politics, which includes privilege, nepotism, impression management, and the ability to take credit for others’ achievements while blaming them for your mistakes. Toxic politics don’t go away when we are all WFA, and making it “optional” to return to the office risks creating a two tiered system that still rewards presenteeism over performance, and where proximity bias (giving preferential treatment to those who hang out with you more, even if you don’t realize) trumps merit and productivity. But the solution is not a return to the old normal: rather, it is making the effort to measure what people contribute with higher objectivity, which can be done by tracking and analyzing potential biases (e.g., do those who come in get higher performance ratings, are those who come in more likely from certain demographic groups, and are teams actually producing more when they spend more time at the office), in order to mitigate them, and restructure work in a fair and transparent way, sanitizing toxic politics.

(6)  Distributed teams: One of the advantages of the pandemic is that it has decreased the premium for working with people who sit next to you at work, and increased the incentives to work with people who are far away. This is good for inclusivity and cognitive diversity – if someone is in a different country or time zone, they are more lilkey to have a different experience, and perhaps background, adding to the richness of thinking and group decision making in teams – and most multinationals have cross-functional, matrix, global-regional teams with geographically dispersed members. Add to this the fact that talent wants to be free, and that there are strong economic advantages of leveraging inexpensive talent in less prosperous countries, and you can quickly imagine the absurdity of forcing people into the office so that they continue working on Zoom or Teams with people who are thousands of miles away, not to mention the impracticalities of finding optimal time zones for everyone, etc. So, just like the 9-5 shift is archaic, the in-person meeting has been significantly downgraded even pre-pandemic. If you want people to be more global and collaborate globally – and of course you care about controlling expenses and not destroying the planet – they will continue to work virtual through technology, even if they still benefit from the occasional in person meeting.

These are just some of the reasons why people may be reluctant to return to the office, at least full time. Even if most of these reasons apply to you, you are still likely to value having an office to go to, and having the chance to meet in person with colleagues. I think the in-person time we invest on others gives us a great deal of virtual credit, which is why it’s usually harder to work with people remotely when you never met them in person. We should also accept that just because people are reluctant to do something doesn’t mean they are right. In that sense, the best thing organizations can do to persuade people to spend more time at the office – if that is indeed their goal – is to prove them wrong. This is rarely a function of showing them data, but rather, of letting them experience the benefits of being at the office, which requires making offices a more appealing environment and work proposition than the alternatives, and the cost-benefit analysis being not based on carrots or sticks, but self-motivated choices.


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