Why aren’t workers particularly appreciating—much less adhering to—return to office mandates? Probably because adults don’t like being ordered around.
“People do want structure, and people like boundaries,” former Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told Fortune editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell last year. “But they don’t like to be told what to do, so I think the secret is to not make them feel like their autonomy is being denied or that their ideas aren’t important, while still giving some structure.”
If only managers had taken the hint. Four in five (80%) of bosses told workplace software firm Envoy that, had they had a better grasp on actual employee preferences, they would have taken a starkly different approach to their return to office plans. The problem, they said: They didn’t have access to workplace data to help them make their decision. In a white paper report, Envoy surveyed 1,156 U.S.-based executives and workplace managers whose employees operate on some form of hybrid schedule.
Over half (54%) of managers told Envoy they’ve had to forgo making a critical decision about the workplace because they lacked the requisite data to support it. Without that data, nearly a quarter of them admit to making decisions based on “gut instinct,” which naturally leads to resentment and disappointment. Fifty-seven percent of bosses said if they had better access to data, they could better measure the success of their in-office policies.
One such example is Amazon, whose RTO plan was admittedly prompted by the feelings of senior leadership, not hard data. “It’s time to disagree and commit. We’re here, we’re back—it’s working,” Mike Hopkins, senior vice president of Prime Video and Amazon Studios, reportedly said of in-person work. “I don’t have data to back it up, but I know it’s better.”
It’s difficult to ascertain just how effective in-person days are compared to at-home days, the Envoy respondents admitted, especially when actual productivity could vary based on any number of factors not necessarily related to work location.
It’s even harder for companies who operate on an ad-hoc basis, letting individual teams decide for themselves when to come in. Though experts speak highly of this kind of “organized hybrid,” it can be difficult to assess its effectiveness at a company level. “With so much variability, it’s difficult to know how to improve efficiency in order to save critical budget,” Brooks Gooding, a workplace experience program manager at a software firm called Braze, said in the report.
Braze operates on a hybrid plan with little consistency in attendance rates, which, as Envoy wrote, can make it “impossible for workplace managers to know how many people are onsite on any given day, and how to best allocate space and resources across the organization.”
The RTO mismatch
Envoy’s data lays bare a fundamental mismatch that’s endured since the earliest days of the pandemic: Most bosses would rather have their workers where they can see them. Most workers demand a bit more latitude than that.
Granted, there are solid arguments for both time spent in the office and time spent on the couch. On one hand, remote work is proven to be between 10% and 20% less productive and can weaken morale and bonding, especially among younger workers and new workforce entrants. But people still overwhelmingly prefer at least a few days per week at home, arguing that physical office presence is more trouble than it’s worth and is rarely necessary to complete a task.
Ideally, a mix of both options—at the workers’ discretion—should fix the problem. Workers are flocking to jobs with flexibility, which has quickly become a must-have for most white-collar industries rather than a nice-to-have.
But many bosses are getting impatient, and many are using the approaching Labor Day holiday as an occasion to officially put “work from anywhere” policies to bed, whether workers like it or not. Alongside the usual suspects (like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs), those even include formerly quite lenient companies, like Meta, Google, and Salesforce.
Despite the fact that remote workers make more money and have fewer expenses, lower stress levels, and more time for family and errands, the office isn’t likely to disappear. In fact, workers can even be excited by the prospect—if they think it’s their idea. Data from Unispace found that a third of workers felt “happy, motivated, and excited” about an office return, but felt none of those things when the return was mandated.
As Atlassian’s Annie Dean put it, productivity, innovation, and creativity are “how-to-work problems, not where-to-work problems,” which will only be solved by a complete overhaul of how we understand work.
“This is a watershed moment of innovation of how work gets done,” Dean told Fortune. “but we’re still talking about the f–king watercooler.”