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Back to the Office by 2026? We Don’t Think So.

A few years back, I worked as a translator in an agency. I'd wake up and spend an hour in public transport to get to the office. I'd sit at my desk, turn on the computer, and start going through tasks I got via email.

For eight hours a day, I'd sit there and type, the same as everyone else in the open plan office. All communication was over email and chat - you can't really talk to people out loud in a situation where everyone is trying to focus on translating.

As a matter of fact, I had a total of three in-person conversations my entire time there. The first was the job interview, the second was to meet my manager, and the third one was when I quit just a few months in.

The entire setup just made no sense to me

Looking back, it's easy to see why I was so miserable. There was literally no good reason for any of us to be in the same office.

Any work that got done could have just as easily been done from home, if not easier. Even if we ignore the occasional distraction caused by sounds of increasingly frustrated typing or an occasional exasperated sigh, we can't ignore time.

I'd waste two hours a day in traffic and then be stuck in an office for another eight. On slow days, when the workload was just not enough to fill eight hours, I'd try to make myself less efficient so my time would go faster. Sometimes, I'd have to resort to playing Tetris online just to have something to do.

tetris at work

It didn't take me long to realize that this was 10 hours of my life for five days a week that I was simply not enjoying. Fast forward a couple of years, I landed my first remote job. Back then, it wasn't as common as it is today, so I wasn't sure how it would work.

From today's perspective, I'd think long and hard before ever going back to an office again. And as much as 51% of people who have switched to remote work due to the pandemic agree.

Executives have other ideas

Despite most workers not wanting to return to the office at all or at least not full time, CEOs have other ideas. As much as 64% of them want a complete return to the office by 2026.

What's more, 87% of said they'd reward those who come back to the office with better assignments, raises, or promotions. However, it looks like it will take a lot more than that to convince employees, if they can be convinced at all.

While companies around the world are trying to push for a return to the office, this time employees are pushing back. 47% plan on quitting if their employer orders them back to the office full time. Two thirds would quit their current job for a remote one, even if it meant taking a pay cut.

At this point, employees clearly don't want to give up the flexibility and autonomy of remote work. They don't want to go back to commuting, office politics, and water cooler chit-chat.

So why are companies so adamant on making them come back to the office? There's a whole list of reasons online, and here are a few of the greatest hits.

1. Working in-office creates work-life balance

Apparently, working from home is bad for your work-life balance. You're having problems disconnecting from your job because it's happening at home.

You need to come back to the office, break your routine, and establish a better work-life balance. It's for your health.

If all of this sounds a bit stretched, that's because it is. Seeing that it comes from a company that focuses on office design, you can see why it's said. 

In reality, work-life balance isn't about location - it's about boundaries. Whether you're working from home or from the office, whether or not those boundaries get crossed depends on both you and your employer.

For employees whose employers expect a reply no matter the time of day, work-life is unbalanced no matter where they work from. For many working in creative fields, work spontaneously happens during life time.

Saying that working from home is the culprit of blurring the lines between work and life isn't only untrue. It's also ignoring individual preferences, job requirements, the creative process, and the employees' own competence to separate work time from private time.

2. Remote work is hurting creativity

Speaking of the creative process, one CEO said creativity was suffering due to remote work. He also stated that face-to-face interactions meant more spontaneity and ingenuity.

However, research shows that what actually hurts creativity in the workplace is the phenomenon of goupthink. And, it's more likely to happen in an in-person environment than a remote one.

When teams need to solve a problem, they often resort to whiteboarding to agree on how to proceed. The problem here is that consensus-based problem-solving kills innovation.

In a group, people are prone to agreeing to a proposed solution with the majority without questioning it or putting forward their own. As a result, you get fewer innovative suggestions and ideas than you would were you to ask people to try to solve a problem independently.

So, if creativity and spontaneity suffer when a team is not in the office, the problem is not remote work itself. It's how the company adapted (or failed to adapt) to the conditions. If the opposite were true, there would be no successful, fully remote companies in the world - and there are many.

3. Remote workers are too productive

Yes, you've read that right. Despite the numerous online articles wondering if remote workers were actually being productive, the same CEO from above thinks his employees were becoming too productive.

It seems that, no matter what you do as a remote employee, there's no winning. On one hand, not replying to an email means you're not being productive. On the other, you can't choose to reply outside of working hours because then you're being too productive.

4. Remote work hurts collaboration

According to a member of the Forbes Human Resources Council, there's nothing like in-person collaboration. It's a "multi-sensory, human experience" that, according to another CEO, makes it easier for teams to resolve issues.

And while there is a difference between in-person and remote collaboration, we wouldn't go as far as saying one is better than the other. It's absolutely possible to collaborate effectively as a remote team, but you need to have the proper systems in place.

Remote teams use everything from project management apps and real-time chat options to voice and video calls. As with in-person collaboration, it works as well as your team knows how to collaborate.

5. Seeing other people work makes you want to work

In the same Forbes article, another Council member claims that remote workers are missing out on "goal contagion". Basically, you're not actually seeing people around you work hard, so you're losing out on the motivation to do the same.

Now, anyone who's worked in an office environment, especially an open-plan one, knows this is not true. If anything, people working all around you is a recipe for endless distractions.

Brian Elliott, executive leader at Future Forum puts it best: "Executives have a better setup at work." Apart from often having private, spacious offices with comfortable furniture, they also have more flexible work arrangements.

Unlike their employees, they can adjust their schedule. And while we can't ignore that these are the perks of their position of authority and autonomy, we also can't ignore the unfairness of speaking of hard work from this position.

In other words, what makes employees work hard isn't seeing their colleagues do the same. It's seeing that working towards company goals also gets them closer to their personal ones. Whether those are financial freedom, the freedom to manage their own time, or not having to ask permission to go to the doctor's, remote work seems more likely to get them there.

6. Communication is more effective in person

Another point the Forbes' Council members were trying to make is that remote communication just doesn't cut it. In their opinion, "the more communication happens face-to-face, the more effective communication will be".

The main reason, according to them, for this is that nonverbal communication is often lost in remote environments. However, anyone who's worked remotely knows that's not necessarily true.

For one, when it comes to written communication, remote work tends to take the corporate lingo out - at least when it comes to messages between team members. You get a feeling of someone's writing style and you start picking up on cues that signal sarcasm, humor, or frustration.

What's more, remote communication isn't just writing. We also have videoconferencing and phone calls. And even if you do consider problems like video lagging or not seeing someone's face, you can still hear their tone. 

What makes communication effective isn't the tools you use to communicate. It's the communication skills of the people trying to come to an agreement, and those don't magically go away once you're out of the office.

7. Remote work hurts company culture

According to Forbes, employers have a harder time making employees feel like they belong in a company if they're working remotely. As a result of that, employees won't be loyal to the company they're working for.

Now, seeing that people who don't want to go back to the office are only considering quitting if they have to, this argument falls apart quickly. Which company would you be more loyal to: the one that doesn't listen and is trying to force you back to the office or the one that doesn't care where you work from as long as your work is done?

What hurts company culture more: employees who keep repeating how unhappy they are for having to come back to the office? Or employees who have flexible working arrangements they're happy with?

8. Remote work means working without the proper equipment

Apparently, hybrid and work from home arrangements can mean "working without the proper equipment or employing home remedies for workstation setups". They go on by saying that home setups don't replace the physical space and furniture available in an office.

Now, I don't know about you, but I've never sat in an office chair more comfortable than my couch. As a matter of fact, in the years of remote work I've done, I've never thought to myself "if only I had an office chair, a desk, and some background noise".

And when it comes to equipment, the discussion is unnecessary. Assuming you're an employer with full time employees, then you're also responsible for providing them with the proper equipment. Whether or not you want to do that for working from home arrangements is your choice. And quitting because you don't is your employees'.

Why employers actually want people back in the office

As you can see, the reasons why employees should go back to the office are... creative. And while there are cases in which in person is the only way a job can be done, there are also those where the same work gets done no matter the location.

So, assuming productivity and job satisfaction are the same or higher while working from home, why do employers insist on going back to the office? Why does location matter if business goals are being met?

1. They've invested in real-estate and office facilities

Before the shift to remote work, in-office was the norm. Naturally, employers invested in renting or buying an office space and then furnishing it.

Now that employees want to stay at home or only spend a few days at the office, that investment is seen as going to waste. Getting employees back in the office is a better return on investment than the office sitting empty.

2. They feel like they've got more control

Another reason some employers want the office life in full force is that they feel like they've got more control when everyone is physically present. Being able to see and interact with their team face-to-face may give them a higher sense of power and influence than virtual communication.

In an office setting, bosses feel like they can monitor productivity levels better than when they can't physically see them. However, that's hardly how it goes.

The fact is, if an employee wants to not work, they can come to the office and still not work. Going back to the example at the beginning, you can just as easily play Tetris at work as you can at home.

3. They want some people to quit

Some managers see transitioning back to the office as an opportunity to weed out underperforming or disengaged staff members. By creating a less desirable work environment, they hope that those who they don't see as fully committed will self-select out of the organization.

In their mind, this strategy allows them to retain only those team members who are willing to adapt and thrive in the new working conditions. However, from the employees' perspective, this can be seen as an exercise in control, which could backfire and result in quiet quitting.

4. They only know how to lead by proximity

For some managers, being able to walk around the office and interact face-to-face with their team members is the only way they know how to manage. They find it challenging to assert authority and influence without being physically preset.

In a remote environment, they feel detached, so they think employees have to feel the same way. In their view, leading from afar is less impactful compared to being present in the same physical space.

5. They want to keep tabs on employees

All that office chit-chat and watercooler talk is just code for keeping tabs on employees. When everyone's stuck in the same space, there's no way office gossip won't make its way into management's ears.

The informal conversations and interactions that happen in office settings serve as channels for information to flow back to management. With remote or hybrid work arrangements, the information flow backs up.

From management's perspective, this means not having insight into employee morale or potential issues. Without employees there to share opinions, concerns, and rumors, some leaders no longer know how to lead.

We'll take a pass on the office, thanks

Better Proposals has been a remote company since the day it started. We've got a team that's scattered across the globe, with different time zones and national holidays. Would we be more productive if we moved to an office?

Not likely. Apart from filming a video every once in a while, none of our jobs would be done any better if we weren't remote. At least mine certainly wouldn't - sitting down to write anything with the bustle of an office around me is now unimaginable. And I'm guessing design, development, and support would also agree.

That said, it's true that remote work isn't for everyone. But neither is an office job. If you're running a company where employees are now resisting coming back to the office, maybe it's time to figure out how to make remote work work.

Instead of seeing remote employees as lazy, maybe it's time to recognize they work better in a non-typical environment. Judging by the volume of applications we get, offering remote or even hybrid roles could help you attract better candidates.

In the long run, learning how to become a successful remote leader might do your organization more good than ordering everyone back to the office.

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Patricija Šobak's profile image
Patricija Šobak puts her talent in spotting questionable grammar and shady syntax to good use by writing about various business-related topics. Besides advocating the use of the Oxford comma, she also likes coffee, dogs, and video games. People find her ability to name classic rock songs only from the intro both shocking and impressive.