We Still Need the Office. Here's Why.

The Office Is Not Dead

As concerns about congregating in the office have waned, and employers have been willing to offer hybrid or flexible work options, most have decreed time in the office is an expectation. Several corporations are no longer even offering a work from home option. But some employees are reluctant to return to the office, particularly those who were already experiencing the darker side of office culture prior to the pandemic, and the prospect of a return to the office is a source of significant stress and anxiety.

In his article, “Hybrid Work is Doomed,” published in The Atlantic on July 25th, author Ian Bogost argues, “The existence of an office is the central premise of office work, and nothing – not even a pandemic – will make it go away.” While proponents of flexible work often argue that it increases their productivity, Bogost says “offices have never been about increased productivity.” Rather, a whole host of time-wasting activities, including office politics, watercooler chat, and unnecessary meetings, have been tolerated because they are central to office life.

Many employees are yearning to get back to the office. They feel lonely and disconnected; many younger workers started their working lives mid-pandemic and have never worked in an office environment. They crave greater connection and the opportunity to collaborate and brainstorm with others in person. Not only are they burned out on Zoom and the heavy reliance on technology, they also feel cut off from opportunities for professional development, networking, and career growth. The very things that can make working in person less productive, e.g., the watercooler chat mentioned by Bogost in his article, can also promote a sense of belonging that is missing from remote work.

Author Tracy Brower, in a 2021 Forbes article entitled “The Real Reason to Go Back to the Office (Hint: It’s Not for Your Employer),” argues that the basic human need for community is a key argument in favor of at least a partial return to the office. While far more difficult “to quantify than productivity or attendance,” the author argues, this need is rooted in “connections, engagement, and being with our colleagues. It is the need we have for each other and to be united around something that matters.”

It’s no surprise that community naturally evolves among strong teams that spend a substantial amount of time together in the office pursuing a shared mission. For many, the office may be the only place to find community. Teams become support networks, not just for workplace situations, but also for personal crises like illness or loss of a loved one, enabling employees to offer one another support and assistance in a multitude of ways. Digital communications tend to keep the focus on immediate tasks and concerns; when the interaction ends, the employee’s focus naturally reverts back to home. Without significant effort on the part of leaders and managers, the “community” can suffer.  

The health benefits of working in the office also cannot be ignored. When people build and sustain in-person relationships, the brain releases a hormone that improves heart health, increases metabolism, improves mental health, and even alleviates pain. Being together also has been found to make people smarter. According to University of Michigan research, cognitive performance increases when people interact, and it’s believed to be because people are required to listen, empathize, think, and respond during in-person conversations and discussions.  

Making the Office Work for Everyone

The good news for employers is that the remote work vs. in-office work decision debate does not require them to make a fully either/or decision. Before your organization decides where—and when—people will work in a post-pandemic world, all organizations must first address these issues:

Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach: It’s neither necessary nor fair to use a one-size fits all approach in deciding where and when your employees will work. If an employee worked remotely before the pandemic, it doesn’t make sense to require that employee to work in the office post pandemic. Nor is it reasonable to replace a high performer possessing a specialized skill set simply because they need a hybrid or fully remote setting. For employees that must be in the office at least some of the time, consider creating a rotating schedule so that employees have time at home and time at the office. Schedule core in-office days for everyone and designate those days for team meetings and core discussions. Ensure that employees have the flexibility they need to take family members to the doctor, work from home when a child is ill, and address their own health and wellness needs.

Restore the work/life balance: With a culture that glorifies overworking, people have tacitly accepted that they must blur the boundaries between home and work in order to advance their careers. A recent survey by Visier found evidence that employees who connect to work during vacation are more likely to quit their jobs. Don’t just require your employees use their PTO and insist that they disconnect from work when they are on vacation; create a culture that makes it possible and admirable to do so.

Look beyond fair pay: The Great Resignation has taught us that workers want to spend their work hours in a meaningful way. While employees expect fair pay, financial compensation alone is not enough to retain employees in a post pandemic world. Workers expect their employers to treat them with respect, to prioritize their overall wellbeing, and to offer them flexibility, along with opportunities for training, development, and advancement.

Cultivate strong leaders at all levels. The relationship between employees and their immediate supervisors is more important than ever. As the primary touchpoint in the employee’s workplace experience, the supervisor has the greatest impact whether an employee will stay or to move on to another employer. Ensuring that supervisors are equipped and trained to lead a strong and successful team should be a priority for all employers.

Respect the value of employees’ time: As stress and burnout rates in the workplace continue to rise, employees feel burdened by the distractions from their essential duties that unnecessary meetings and monotonous tasks create. Supervisors and leaders can alleviate this frustration by being more disciplined; they should prepare ahead for meetings and keep them on track. Boredom lowers morale and hurts retention. Help employees see the connection between their tasks and your organization’s mission. Offer opportunities to learn new skills.

Create touchpoints with employees: Supervisors can support employees by scheduling regular one-on-one meetings, offering an open-door policy, instituting a “stay interview” process, and even scheduling team social events. Not only will employees feel more cared for; they will also experience first-hand the benefits of working in person through stronger workplace relationships and a sense of community.

Address incivility in the workplace: After nearly three years for some workers of working from home, it’s not difficult to imagine that interpersonal skills have grown rusty. Portland State University researchers found that workplace incivility has been on the rise because people no longer have the skills to handle difficult conversations. Incivility is not always easy to identify, particularly if it’s occurring digitally, and can range from interrupting others to outright bullying. If employers want their workers to be in the office, they must be willing to remedy these issues. This is also an excellent opportunity to investigate whether certain employees – particularly introverts – might need a quieter space, away from strong personalities and more talkative co-workers, in which to focus on their tasks.

A Few Final Thoughts

The necessities of keeping people safe during a pandemic, which lasted longer than expected, caused a major shift in the workplace. The challenge now is to consider transitioning to a less traditional and perhaps more modern workplace–one that offers the benefits of being together in an office space, as well as the opportunity to conduct work both inside and outside the walls of a traditional office. It is clear that the workforce wants something different.

Long before the pandemic, once workers had access to an internet connection, a laptop, and a smart phone, remote work became an accepted practice. If this is possible, why shouldn’t we expect leaders to create an environment that is more responsive to the modern workforce? In this age of constantly emerging technologies and increasing focus on quality of life for employees who are not afraid to advocate for what they want and need, the workplace is much like any other commodity. Opportunities abound for organizations that can put aside traditional office space and hours and provide an environment that flexes to meet the needs of the function and the employee.

With 20 years’ experience working in HR, OMNI Senior Consultant Keli Tuschman views herself as a businessperson, as well as an HR professional. Her background in accounting has also been a plus for her understanding of the business environment that HR supports. Keli has worked in the energy sector for Koch Industries and Merrill Lynch, in Higher Ed and K-12 education, and has served on several non-profit boards. She is a strategic partner who can provide services in all areas of human resources to support your business needs. Keli and her husband have two high school age children and love all that the Kansas City area has to offer families.

Jennifer Gross-Statler, Marketing & Communications Manager, comes to us with over 20 years’ experience as a nonprofit professional. Her background includes four years as Executive Director of a Connecticut nonprofit with a state mandate to evaluate state-funded mental health programs, assess strengths and unmet needs, and make recommendations for improvements. She brings valuable expertise to OMNI in community and media relations, marketing and branding, project management, and strategic planning. Jennifer is a graduate of The College of William & Mary.