Employers shouldn’t be hasty in pushing full- or even part-time face time in offices before they know for a fact that it’s what’s best for the company and can clearly outline expectations. Remote work is a delicate balance, and a serious misstep will alienate workers and jeopardize retention which also can put projects and businesses at risk.
Once considered a luxury, part-time and full-time remote work is now a standard (or even expected) offering across industries. Odds are that most people reading this article have worked from home at least for a little while since the beginning of the coronoavirus pandemic, and many may still be doing so. However, while we’ve talked how location can impact employees’ career prospects, when it comes to whether or not being in-office is necessary, that’s a whole other ballgame.
Employees now value the many perks of working from home; a zero-mile commute saves time and money, business clothing has been rendered optional-to-unnecessary while comfy pajamas are du jour, and being at home can be a more relaxed, flexible, and personally controlled environment. So when it comes to requiring employees to return to the office, employers are going to have to think about what situations really require employees to show up in person, as an Advanced Workplace Associates study of nearly 100,000 participants shows that “Just 3% of white collar workers want to return to the office five days a week” and “A full 86% of employees want to work from home at least two days a week”. 
As was proven by the rapid switch to remove work, the traditional office setting isn’t strictly “necessary” for many office workers to complete their job duties. Sure, it can make collaboration easier, but when push came to shove, most of us worked from home and jumped on Zoom, Teams, Slack, or WebEx for messaging and audio and video calls when it became necessary to work with others in real time. However, just because that method works doesn’t mean it works well, or even if it does work well, it may not do so all the time, so there are situations where meeting in-person is necessary.
For example, physical proximity can also affect communication in ways that employers and employees may not anticipate, even within members of the same team at work. Research performed by Harvard Business Review found that in-person communication was significantly more effective than digital communications (video, audio, or text, such as email) in getting a positive response to a request to proofread a document.  One study found that “in-person communication was 67% more effective for getting to “yes” than any form of video or audio communication” while another discovered “face-to-face requests were 34 times more effective than email requests”. However, the study acknowledges that face-to-face requests may also simply be more effective due to additional peer pressure, and frankly, employees declining additional tasks (perhaps to focus on more important ones!) is something that can actively improve performance.
However, as noted above, when it comes to the necessity of showing up at the office there are many considerations. Especially knowing that mandating in-office time can risk losing good employees who now highly value work from home flexibility, relying on tangible, fact-based results is key to informing these decisions. Are employees equally or more productive at home or in the office? Are there certain aspects that are handled better remotely or in person, such as individually handled projects where a solo environment allows for more focus, or certain collaborative meetings where employees can communicate more effectively when able to meet as a group in-person? From a purely unemotional perspective, employers shouldn’t be hasty in pushing full- or even part-time face time in offices before they know for a fact that it’s what’s best for the company and can clearly outline expectations. Remote work is a delicate balance, and a serious misstep will alienate workers and jeopardize retention which also can put projects and businesses at risk. Performing this new calculation is admittedly more work, but also has more benefits. Finding a policy that walks the line between clearly stated expectations, flexibility that empowers employees to do their best work as individuals, and also advocating for the productivity of their team, and the company, as a whole, is a difficult but worthwhile goal, and unfortunately there is no one-size-fits all solution.
My boss once told me “business moves at the speed of trust.” I was floored the first time I heard him say it, and I still find it to be as refreshing as it is true. It’s a phrase I think of when I talk about remote work, because it often seems like the return to the office is driven by a desire for control, whether real or the illusion thereof, rather than smart business decisions with an eye to productivity and employee retention. Something like insisting workers show up for X number of days a week when their colleagues aren’t necessarily present negates the theoretical purpose and will only serve to frustrate workers who feel the return to work is simply driven by a lack of trust.
These articles are prepared for general purposes and are not intended to provide advice or encourage specific behavior. Before taking any action, Advisors and Plan Sponsors should consult with their compliance, finance and legal teams.
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