During the pandemic, I’ve followed a number of articles and papers that discuss the potential impact if companies/institutions allow a substantial portion of their workers to continue to work from home. Among the suggested outcomes are that demand for commercial office space will shrink and people will move out of the cities since commuting time is no longer an issue.
In an article recently published in the Boston Globe, author Jon Levy makes a great argument explaining why the hybrid work environment probably won’t last and that everyone will eventually go back to the office. Mr. Levy, author of You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence, provides four reasons why people will return to the office instead of working from home. These reasons are:
1. The Allen Curve – MIT professor Thomas Allen conducted an experiment in the 1970s, measuring communication between people in an office as it related to the proximity of their desks. The closer the desks were between workers, the more communication increased exponentially. Levy writes that “remote work may be fine if you are a freelancer hired for a specific job or if you are a salesperson in the field, but in the hybrid office where some people are in-person and others are remote, working from home has serious implications for being recognized and appreciated and getting bonuses and promotions.”
2. Trust – According to Mr. Levy, workers separated by distance need higher levels of trust to function. Normally, trust is created through in-person interaction. Behavioral scientists have identified trust-related dynamics such as “the vulnerability loop,” where people trust each other more by demonstrating vulnerability and revealing vulnerability in return. These behaviors occur face-to-face as part of the sidebars between meetings.
Increasing trust at a distance requires substantial planning such as games or competitions, organized for team members to invest effort in one another beyond Zoom calls and emails. Over the long run, those who work together in person will bond more strongly than those at a distance. Mr. Levy observes that a two-class system — those who work at the office and those who work from home — may be corrosive to a sense of trust.
3. Working from Home Can Be Too Convenient – Having commuting time allows our minds to wander and explore ideas, notes Mr. Levy. Commuting time gives us time to process information, plan a discussion with the boss, or replay conversations from meetings that day. While remote workers can also plan breaks, many are not good at establishing boundaries on their time that will enable their minds to explore fresh ideas.
4. Belonging – Humans are not designed to be alone. We evolved in communities and survived because we worked together. Companies that manage to create the greatest sense of belonging are those types of organizations where people stay employed there for years. It’s hard to create a sense of community among people who work from home and even harder when employees have been hired remotely and may never have met the team in person. Mr. Levy suggests that it is so difficult to create a well-functioning workforce at a distance that it will be better for companies and employees to return to the workforce when it is safe to do so.
I have not read Mr. Levy’s new book, but I agree with many of his points. Spending much of the past year working from home but occasionally visiting offices (safely) to meet with someone, I winced at the absence of people and activities normally associated with a vibrant workplace.
As much as I was not a fan of commuting, it did allow me time to reflect on events from the day as well as plan for the day ahead. Sometimes it gave me the time I needed to talk with a colleague about an issue or speak to a trusted Board member or outside advisor.
I can envision a future where companies allow employees to work from home a day or two a week, but if I were an employee with a goal of achieving promotions and more responsibility, I’d choose the office. If I were the boss looking for a way to persuade people to return to the office, I’d send them Mr. Levy’s article.