Should Your Company Go Back To The Office Or Stay Remote?

Dr. Loubna Noureddin is a leadership scholar, executive coach, civil war survivor, orphans advocate, author and co-founder of Mind Market

2022 is reminding us that the way we do work is no longer the same. The structural shift in the workplace is real. It seems that the old way of doing things is a cherished memory from the past.

The debate over going back to the office has been a hot button topic for many. The question of when, how and if employees should return to the physical space has gained popularity both in research and in meeting agendas. For many companies, the push for remote work won. Some companies have eliminated in-office work altogether, while others continue to aimlessly reorganize their travel and return-to-the-office policies.

Current trends do not settle the debate: Which is better? The answer is quite simple: It depends

Indecisive as this may seem, making the choice to operate fully remote depends on your business, the drivers for your success and the needs of your employees.

The stories of premature attempts have been covered exhaustively in the media. Our need for control and the assumption that things will get better when everyone is in the office may conceal the more important question here: What is really better for you?

Back To The Office

Organizational benefits often underpin the conviction that going back to the office is best. These are collective advantages that impact individual and team levels:

1. Serendipity: The need for watercooler conversations and spontaneous connections has never been more pertinent. Being in the office allows for connections to happen organically. The pre-orchestrated networking events captured in the box do not always satisfy the need for unforced connections.

2. Culture: New employees often report difficulty integrating into the culture in a remote setting. They may have challenges connecting to existing teams. The office provides a prime space for friendships and meaningful relationships to form. Social foundations that promote collaboration happen spontaneously. Just-in-time problem solving and decision making can be essential to team dynamics, and it can be more difficult to sustain these collaborations remotely.

3. Creativity: This decade taught us that big ideas help companies grow exponentially. They can be more viable in person. Physical presence creates the opportunity for impromptu idea sharing and creative thinking.

4. Management: Many managers report challenges with keeping tabs on team performance and progress from a distance. The physical presence of a team can allow for timely communication and less mismanagement. Feelings of being out-of-sight, out-of-mind can result in endless virtual meetings, leading to considerable mental fatigue.

5. Work and life boundaries: For some, working from home seems like a luxury; for others it is a logistical nightmare. Working from home can be strenuous on work-life balance. The boundaries may seep into each other, rendering the home a place of stress, as opposed to a place of rest.

Staying Remote

So what should you consider to make the shift? Gary Burnison, the CEO of Korn Ferry, suggests we start “by accurately perceiving the reality of today.” 

The reality is that for many organizations, where the work gets done is not critical, but how the work gets done and who gets it done is what matters. A study featured in MIT Sloan concluded that those working remotely could be just as effective as those working face to face. They found it is not the location that impacts productivity, rather individual ability and group dynamics are most important to tackle the task at hand.

Many employers worry that their staff cannot be as effective remotely. The tendency to micromanage, impose control and enforce expectations can be challenged in a virtual setting. This does not mean that outcomes are hindered in remote contexts. On the contrary, some companies reported significant growth in fully virtual environments.

When faced with the debate, you might want to consider these advantages to remote work:

1. Access to talent: When your organization is no longer limited to a specific ZIP code, you open up the opportunity to capitalize off of a wider pool of talent. Not to mention, remote work enables you to embrace inclusion and diversity by removing the geographic barrier.

2. Increased autonomy: When you focus on clear and specific outcomes, rather than people’s time and space, office interruptions become a story of the past, and employee productivity can meet its full potential. Remote work allows employers and employees to focus their energy on the bottom line.

3. Financial gains: Global Workplace Analytics deduced that for every employee who works from home half of the time, a company could save approximately $11,000 per year. For every employee. By supporting remote workers, companies can save on overhead costs, real estate costs, transit subsidies and continuity of operations. Many companies are already taking the leap to remote operations around the clock based on significant savings in these areas. 

4. Flexible lifestyles: Despite fears over disrupting work-life balance, many managers and staff are willing to quit their jobs for flexible options that allow them to better manage their personal lives.

If we open the debate about whether it is best to go back or not, either side could win. Who is right does not matter. What matters is what is best for you and your team. Go back to simple tactics: Ask your team what they want. Empower your managers to listen and to create work solutions that meet their teams’ unique needs. Shift your focus from what you think is best to how you can best get to your desired business outcomes. You may want to consider a more flexible model for your team and bring team members together in person when you want to create space for creativity to happen. Flexibility does not mean picking one way or the other; flexibility means focusing on your why and flexing the how.

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