The Business Case for the Office

Diane Gayeski
Diane Gayeski
Published on 
9.22.2022

collaboration in the office

It’s clear that many jobs can be done well from anywhere with a good internet connection - AND that many people prefer to be freed from the 9-5 office routine.  Are those bosses who are requiring people to come back to the office just being demanding – or is there something to their feeling that the organization just doesn’t function well if it’s fully remote?  

I’ve distilled 4 critical facts that leaders should consider as they look at making a business case for the office.

  1. What people want is flexibility and more control - not necessarily “home vs office”.
  2. Fully remote work impacts people differently and can amplify DEI issues if managers aren’t careful.
  3. The office promotes socialization which is not a distraction but instead is the foundation for engagement and retention, critical.
  4. We need to be careful in how we define “productivity”:  Unplanned encounters and observations are the source of informal learning and innovation, and merely cranking out work can’t position an organization for future growth.

What Employees Really Want

A recent Gallup poll indicates that 9 in 10 employees prefer some degree of remote flexibility. Specifically, FutureForum (Slack’s research consortium) found that 95% percent of workers want flexible hours and 78% want location flexibility. Their latest pulse survey states, “Knowledge workers who say their company does not allow flexible work are 20% more likely to look for a new job in the next year.”

Rigid mandates by executives to return to a traditional 9-5 in-office routine cause smart employees to feel like they’re just exerting their power or are stuck in tradition rather than paying attention to current data and trends. 

Katarina Berg, Spotify’s HR leader, praised their policy of allowing employees to choose where they work in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  About 60% have chosen to work from an office a majority of the time. “Nobody is telling me that I need to come in. It’s just my choice. I’m smart; I know how I want to do my job, when I want to do my job. If you recruit grown-ups and then you treat them as kids, it’s going to backfire.”  

The job of leaders is to enable people to find the resources and spaces they need to get their best work down. It’s no wonder then that workplace experience platforms are seeing such a rise in popularity. These tools give employees the ability to schedule appropriate spaces and coordinate schedules with team members and empowers them to make their own intelligent decisions. 

Accenture’s Future of Work study found several attributes of the traditional office that draw people to want to work there, including:

  • Access to better technology that promotes productivity and inspiring settings that promote innovation
  • Easier collaboration with co-workers
  • The stability and variety offered by a regular routine of going to the office
  • Visibility to key leaders 

Fully Remote Work Raises DEI Challenges

Hybrid work options can greatly expand your DEI efforts, as I outlined in my blog last November.  However, working from home is a vastly different experience depending on one’s circumstances.  It’s lovely if you’re an executive with a home office and can enjoy your first conference call sipping coffee by your pool while your kids scamper about with their nanny. 

On the other hand, if you’re a new college grad sharing a small apartment with your parents and 2 young siblings and you’ve never met most of the people in your organization, it can be isolating, full of distractions, and difficult to understand the context of your work. If you’re a woman or new immigrant who doesn’t run in the same social circles as the boss, you may not get the visibility or mentoring you need to rise in your career.  

Deloitte released a global survey of 5,000 women; half or more of them feared that lack of office contact had left them excluded from important meetings or had shrunk their contact with senior leaders.  Their fears are not unfounded: a Harvard University study comparing call center workers who worked from home vs those who worked in the office found that while the productivity of the two groups was equal, 23 percent of on-site workers were promoted within their first 12 months of work, while the remote promotion rate was 10 percent. 

Women and individuals with lower-paying jobs have reported significant levels of burnout because hybrid work can come with uncertain schedules that makes it difficult for people to plan things like car sharing and child care. Part of the problem lies in how organizations communicate office activity to their teams.

There’s nothing worse than commuting into the office just to find a sea of empty desks. Leaders need to find the right tools to showcase what’s happening in the office when, who will be there and what spaces are up for grabs.  By creating more transparency, employees are empowered to plan ahead, factoring in key interactions and visibility. 

Promoting Recruitment, Engagement and Retention 

Headlines in business magazines and social media posts are full of phrases like “quiet quitting” and “the Great Resignation”.  Many employers are having a tough time filling jobs especially in hospitality, retail, and healthcare. Employees leaving those jobs are not just people who decided to retire early or stay home to take care of young kids; they are people who have up-skilled to jobs with more pay and better work environments.  

The key to recruiting and retaining top talent is creating meaningful and stimulating work. Part of this equation includes workplace processes. Would you want to come into an office everyday without knowing where you would sit? Would you continue to make the commute if the office had shoddy tech and no space for collaboration? Removing the time and frustration of trying to coordinate office days or meetings can demonstrate to employees that you value their time and that your organization is committed to building a positive and flexible workplace experience that acknowledges their needs.

If you’re recruiting new college grads, pay attention to this research: Wharton professor Peter Cappelli has found that young professionals are less engaged and committed if they’re working fully remotely, putting them at disadvantage for promotions and other career development opportunities. Accenture’s research backs that up: 74% Gen Zers want more opportunities to collaborate face-to-face. 

My own students, seniors majoring in corporate communications, had a dismal two years trying to have a college experience from their bedrooms on their laptops, and they feel that they’ll need the stimulation and socialization that an office setting can provide.  Watching how other employees act, and even listening to office chatter gives young employees a sense of what the business values, what it takes to thrive there, and where the organization is headed.  

However, Gen Z also doesn’t want to be “stuffed in a cubicle”.   Creating engaging spaces that support different types of work – such as brainstorming, training, or quiet concentration - enhance both comfort and performance. (PS: Take a look at these exciting new layout ideas for your hybrid office.) 

Workplace friendships can be tricky, but studies have shown that having a best friend at work can lead to higher productivity and can discourage a talented employee from being head-hunted away.  Friendships also lead to what’s called “organizational citizenship behavior” - when employees go above and beyond what’s required, such as pitching in to help a co-worker, volunteering for committees, or representing the company in a positive light in public settings. 

One of my former students had extraordinary success retaining high potential young engineers in tough international assignments by creating an orientation program that provided opportunities for them to bond with their co-workers’ families.  She reported that one of her top recruits passed on a lucrative opportunity to work for the competition; he said that knowing that his co-workers would jump in to help if his wife had a flat tire or the kids were sick when he was traveling was the factor that made him stay.

The Role of Informal Learning

Most human behavior is learned by modeling others - psychologist Albert Bandura discovered this in scores of studies that led to his theory of social learning in the 1960s. Corporate training professionals may believe their well-designed courses are superior to what they disapprovingly call the old  “sit by Sally” method, but the vast majority of learning occurs during informal encounters and observations.  That’s how tacit knowledge, the know-how that’s gained from experience and is very difficult for an expert to even articulate, is shared.  

I recall phoning my Italian grandma to ask her how to make pasta dough - she told me to add flour and water until it “comes right” – something that she could not describe and that I’d need to see and experience at her side.  Overhearing a sales rep deal with an angry customer or watching the body language of a colleague doing a pitch to a client are examples of critical knowledge-sharing. A recent MIT brief proposes estimates that during the COVID shutdown, that kind of informal and observational learning decreased by 25%. 

Many leaders are now feeling that a lack of serendipitous interactions is leading to a stall in innovation. Researchers have found that communication between “weak links” in a network - people who don’t usually interact with each other based on location or organizational structure- are what fuel innovation.  Microsoft researchers also concluded that “firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts.” 

Re-Thinking Our Definitions of Productivity 

While many people report they are more productive working from home, this is not a universal truth.  More importantly, it depends on how we define “productivity”.  

Not everyone has the discipline or the know-how to self-manage working from home.  A 2021 PwC survey of 1,200 U.S. workers found that 34% of respondents with less than five years of work experience were “more likely to feel less productive while working remotely” compared to 23% of all survey respondents. This could be due to their own personalities or willpower or because their environments are not well-suited to  productive work. 

Productivity gains from remote work may also be temporary.  What may be playing out is the well-known “Hawthorne Effect” of people improving their performance if they feel like they are being observed, or the novelty effect of a new work pattern that’s energizing for a while. 

It may be tempting to equate high levels of employee activity with success - such as number of sales calls placed or travel expenses reconciled -  but doing so misses the factors that drive long-term organizational health.  Managers also need to focus on well-being, social connections, collaboration and the innovation they bring to drive business success according to Microsoft’s studies reported in Harvard Business Review.   

One of the seminal leaders in my professional practice area of workplace performance improvement is Thomas Gilbert.  His major contribution to the field is the principle that behavior is different than accomplishment, and what’s important to nurture at work is “worthy performance”, the ratio of valuable accomplishments to costly behavior.  

For example, my productivity as an academic scholar could be assessed by how many conference papers I present each year.  However, if those papers don’t really make any impact on the field, or if my presentations don’t raise the reputation of my college in the eyes of prospective students or faculty members, what have I really accomplished?  

Managers need to be careful of stifling what could appear to be loafing or socializing. Gilbert was fond of telling the story of a supervisor at Fort Jackson who wanted to clear out spent lead bullets on a firing range. He hired some college students on summer break to supplement his crew and trained them to perform the task as he had carefully laid out each step.

When he went to check on them, he was horrified to find them playing music and socializing while haphazardly scraping their sieves into the sand, and he admonished them to follow his instructions.  But they continued to do it their way, so he fired them all at the end of the day.  Only later did he find that the students collected three times more lead than the laborers!  When he sheepishly went back to the students to try to re-hire them, they all refused.

Smart companies are engineering spaces that are designed both for efficiency and for relationship-building - both necessary factors for strong brands. The best way to understand what your teams need out of the workplace is by observing how the office is being used. Workplace analytics can help leaders paint a fuller picture of what office amenities are being used, which desks see the most bookings and how often people come back to the office. These data points help workplace teams create spaces and plans that reflect their unique teams.  

Five Takeaway Lessons

We need to stop framing the office as an employer-driven mandate. There are plenty of benefits for employees, from stronger connections with their coworkers to a stronger sense of purpose in their day-to-day work. Remember: 

  1. Don’t make arbitrary rules about returning to the office; employees value control and data-based decision making. Provide them with the spaces and the tools to decide for themselves how to optimize their work efforts..
  2. Don’t assume that eliminating distractions means higher performance.  Socializing and informal encounters promote learning, retention, and innovation and strengthen an organization’s culture - think of the office as the “culture hub”. 
  3. Don’t equate productivity with behavior or “seat-time”.  I may be producing a lot of widgets very quickly - but maybe we need to rethink how we produce them or if quantity is what we need, rather than quality. 
  4. DO leverage what current research and foundational theory of organizational behavior tell us about how to engineer accomplishment and a vibrant culture. 
  5. DO shift the role of managers from being bean-counters and supervisors to, as I wrote in another blog, storytellers, social directors, and experience designers. 

Ready to set your workplace up for success? Explore how a workplace experience platform can engage your teams and streamline the logistics of hybrid work. 

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Diane Gayeski, Ph.D. is acknowledged for her innovation, research, and teaching in corporate communication and performance improvement. She conducts research and shares her insights in her roles as Professor of Strategic Communication and former Dean at Ithaca College’s Roy H Park School of Communications and as Principal in Gayeski Analytics