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Why Come Back to the Office? The Power of In-Person Collaboration

two professionals sitting in an office and collaborating
The Robin Team
Published on

There’s now a significant amount of social science research showing the benefits of in-office collaboration for employees and organizations. The empirical evidence, much of which we’ll explain below, clearly indicates that the proximity of employees in a workplace environment can:

  • Improve performance for individuals and organizations alike,
  • Increase collaboration,
  • Create positive feelings of belonging and connection,
  • foster innovation and new ideas,
  • advance a person’s chances for promotion,
  • and much more.

This blog post will offer employees and organizations an evidence-based explanation of why employees benefit from coming back to the office,  why employers should want people back in the office (with tips on how they can do that), and why the office will always be a critical element of any productive and purpose-driven workplace. Time to put on your social scientist hat!

Communication often moves faster when teams are in the same spaces.

Proximity Still Matters (A Lot)

Let’s look at one specific research study from Northwestern University. It shows that simply sitting near a high-performing employee can make someone better at their job. The study was conducted by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor of Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois). 

The Northwestern researchers spent two years developing the study and used over 2000 employees at a big tech firm as subjects. They found that when an employee sat within 25 feet of a high performer, that proximity -- independent of all other factors -- boosted job performance by 15%. Conversely, when employees sat near a poor performer, their performance was impacted by more than 15% in a negative direction

When the neighboring employees, one a high-performer and one not, had complementary skill sets, the study found that the 15% “baseline” positive performance boost became even higher, supporting the old saying that “birds of a feather flock together” and fly. The two researchers wrote an article in Harvard Business Review, writing that their study “illustrates how office design can influence performance . . . physical space, which companies can manage relatively inexpensively, can be an important business resource” in driving performance improvement. 

The Evolution of Today’s Office 

The role of the office has changed tremendously in the last four years, much of it driven by COVID-19 and a global pivot to remote and hybrid work. Before the pandemic, the office was the default, 5-days-a-week destination for nearly everyone. Not anymore.

We’ve seen incredible innovations in the technologies and practices to support hybrid work, which helped employees and organizations maintain productivity in a world of distributed teams, one where some people worked from home and some people worked from the office.

Yet as the global emergency has started to wane, employees and organizations alike have now recognized the office as an essential locus for in-person collaboration, connection-building, culture-building, and an enhanced sense of belonging. Hybrid work has now been adopted across the business landscape as the “sweet spot” balancing the need for in-office, in-person collaboration with people's desire for more flexibility around when, where, and how they work.

Survey after survey from sources like Gallup have shown that about three-fourths of all employees want both (1) the flexibility that a hybrid work schedule offers to accommodate people need for work-life balance and (2) the opportunity to come together with their colleagues for in-person work in the office.

Over the last four years, change has been the name of the game for office spaces. Now, most companies embrace hybrid work, offering the best of both worlds.

Hybrid: The “New Normal” 

A 2023 report from the company Cisco, called From Mandate to Magnet, notes that “hybrid working is now normalized. Over four in five (82%) organizations around the world have [a significant amount] of their workforce on hybrid working arrangements . . .For those on hybrid working arrangements, employees most commonly attend the office three to four days per week.”

In a landscape of hybrid work, the office is in stiff competition with people’s homes, so every office must earn each visit by offering employees a seamless and attractive experience (offices should be more “magnet,” and less “mandate”). The commute is hard enough, but many employees may decide to ignore any mandate and just stay home if they’re forced to confront daily friction around booking desks and meeting spaces, as well as booking office resources. The office experience has never mattered more now that the office isn’t people’s only option.


Why Employees Want to Go Back to The Office

The Barbara Streisand song is right about the profound need we all have for human connection: “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” The research clearly shows that (1) employees want to come together IRL in the office, at least some of the time, and (2) they recognize the office’s essential place as a locus for connection, collaboration, and culture-building. In fact, From Mandate to Magnet found that the top four most common reasons people cited for wanting to come into the office are:

  • interacting and socializing with other people (74%), 
  • collaborating with other people (71%), 
  • ideating and brainstorming in person with others (53%), and 
  • developing a sense of belonging (46%)

In short, the “killer application” of the office is people coming together with other people. It’s the role of organizations and workplace leaders to make coming in as seamless and frictionless an experience as possible.

Don't let the headlines fool you; not all employees dread their in-office days. In fact, research shows they are excited to collaborate.

Why Employers Want People Back in The Office

Employers have obviously invested a lot of money in creating office environments – let’s not forget that commercial real estate and related office assets (furniture, equipment, etc.) are typically any business’s second highest operating expense (after employees). Unsurprisingly, businesses expect an ROI from their office investment.

Surveys show that employers see the office as a place for collaboration and connection. Many business leaders have expressed concern about the impact of distributed teams and remote work on productivity, communication, and organizational culture.  According to research from Salesforce, 86% of business executives cite “ineffective communication and collaboration as a major contributor to business failures,” and believe remote workers and hybrid work can make communication and collaboration more challenging.

Research from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology seems to support this concern. A study published in JESP showed that subjects who worked collaboratively stuck to their task 64% longer than peers who did the same task alone, while the collaborators also reported higher employee engagement levels, lower fatigue levels, and a higher success rate when compared to their solitary colleagues. 

The academic journal Nature Human Behavior also substantiated some of the main concerns business leaders have expressed about remote work, finding that:

1. Remote working resulted in more siloed collaboration networks [among employees] with decreased diversity and interpersonal dynamics, potentially hindering knowledge transfer and productivity.

2. Remote work decreased synchronous (i.e., happening in real-time) communication and increased asynchronous communication, possibly affecting information processing and productivity.

3. The complexity of remote work and distributed teams can negatively impact collaboration networks and communication dynamics, potentially leading to downstream impacts on employee productivity mental health, individual and team engagement, and beyond.

The Human Psychology of Why the Office Matters 

As human beings, we’ve spent millenia honing our “soft skills” and effectively communicating IRL via face-to-face conversations as opposed to digitally. Recent research in the social sciences supports the idea that people who only live and work in digital spaces may lose their “soft skills” over time, thus reducing the quality of their IRL social interactions. There’s growing evidence, much of it compiled by Professor Jonathan Haidt at New York Univesity,  that younger people/Gen Z (who have only known a world of digital-first engagement and constant social media interaction) may be suffering from “an epidemic of loneliness” and social anxiety when they interact with people in real life/IRL.

People not only feel more connected with a greater sense of belonging when they work together towards common goals in the same place, but they’re also more productive and engaged. Research from University of Edinburgh, London School of Economics, and Copenhagen Business School showed that people were much more productive (by 10%) in critical and time-sensitive situations when they worked in the same room and in close proximity, independent of other factors, backing up the Northwestern research we discussed earlier.

We are social creatures, and the office is a place where we get together with like-minded people working towards a common goal.

4 Tips for Building a “Commute-Worthy” Office Environment

So what can employers do to build a workplace that people want to come to and connect in? Here are some quick suggestions:

1. Consider "return on commute” (RoC)

Every survey shows that the commute is, by gar, the top reason people don't want to come into the office. Gallup's top workplace researcher, Jim Harter, wrote an entire blog post about how much people hate commuting.

In a world of hybrid work, the office must earn its visits by being an attractive destination for in-person collaboration, social connection, and culture-building. 

Nobody wants to return to the office and brave the long commute just because “our CEO says so.” To offer people more “return on commute,” you need to start by eliminating friction from the process of visiting the office. You might also create a series of learning, social, and/or entertainment events in your offices, as well as in-office networking opportunities, so people can gain the most benefits when they come together.

2. Create flexible office layouts

Your office layouts, furniture, and equipment should be flexible/customizable in addressing people’s evolving needs for space, comfort, collaboration, digital connection, and more. Many organizations have already re-imagined their floor plans and layouts, even eliminating designated desks and spaces.

A transformed workplace might have hot desking or hoteling, supported by desk and meeting room booking software, or have dedicated office space that supports collaboration, brainstorming, quiet immersion, relaxation/socializing, and more.  

Creating a variety of office spaces ensures every employee has what they need to do their best work.

3. Invest in enabling technology

Making an office worth the commute means blending and evolving: (1) physical spaces, (2) business practices and processes, and (3) technology tools in order to accommodate your people’s needs. 

You can’t implement hot desking, for example, unless you support the practice with an effective desk booking system. Otherwise, you’ll have people fighting over desks. You’d also need a meeting room booking system so people know which meeting spaces are available and when, instead of having chaos. Robin exists to help you in just those ways.

4. Use workplace analytics to optimize your workplace strategy

A workplace experience platform should provide your workplace leadership team with real-time data on space utilization that can inform decision-making around how you improve/evolve your office experience. 

The incoming data serves as a navigation system, telling you how your office space is performing and what adjustments need to be made to accommodate people’s needs.

For example, you can analyze your data to pinpoint which areas of your office are used the most and which are underutilized. You can then readjust your layouts, transforming low-traffic areas into spaces that are in demand. 

In the end, following the four steps above will help you transform your office into a locus of employee experience and human connection, which the research shows is what people want. Robin has been helping organizations like yours effectively transform their offices into commute-worthy places people love. 

Reach out to us for help.

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Return to Office Report 2024

Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

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Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

office map
an employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshot