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Return to the Office, or the Old Days?

As companies continue to weigh their approaches to the future of work, the debate over when, how and even if to return to the office is growing more intense. With evidence increasingly pointing to remote-first as a way to prioritize employee needs and drive productivity, the case for hybrid is making itself.

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Return-to-office (RTO) plans are the talk of the town, but not everyone is saying the same thing. While most agree that hybrid work is the way of the future, protocols and policies vary. Safe to say, the concept of remote-first remains a work in progress. 


For their part, a growing number of employers are increasingly pressing for a return to the way things were, circa 2019, complete with back-and-forth commutes, in-person meetings, whiteboard sessions and those chance water cooler encounters that changed the world. (More on those in a minute.)


For workers, it’s another story. With remote work continuing to offer the promise of greater flexibility and work-life balance, with workers having spent the past two years proving they’re more productive working from where it works for them, employer efforts to rekindle the office culture of yesteryear are being met with a fair amount of resistance. 


First, let’s take a look at the three primary factors emboldening today’s RTO proponents: Culture, Connectivity, and Creativity. 


Then let’s debunk them.


Factor 1: Culture


Employers say remote work is fine, great, wonderful, in fact, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of office culture. They further contend that office culture is best nurtured in a familiar place – at the office. 


Employees say not so fast. On the one hand, people do want to come together, they want it for the socialization, they want it for team-building, and for the sense of belonging. At the same time, expectations have changed these past two, pandemic-fraught years. We’ve changed. Most employees want flexibility, and are willing to push for it. They don’t want to commute to the office five days a week, but they don’t necessarily want to be full-time remote, either. Many have turned to so-called “third spaces” for both specialized and collaborative work. From private facilities to cozy coffee shops and cafes with Wi-Fi, third place venues offer proximity to home along with many of the benefits of a traditional workplace environment. 


Put another way, employees want flexible work schedules, remote-friendly work environments, and a sense of belonging, too.


The good news is they can have it all, thanks to a shifting mindset that embraces the idea that no one environment can be all things to all people, and an ever-expanding digital toolkit that offers new and powerful ways to create, collaborate from anywhere, while also promoting equity and inclusion, a powerful concept unto itself whose time has finally come.


It’s a new way of working, and the data has its back. Future Form Pulse, a quarterly survey of more than 10,000 desk workers, shows that sense of belonging is now higher for hybrid – and fully remote – workers than for those working full-time in the office. 


Then there’s the inclusion factor. The same quarterly survey from Future Form Pulse revealed that underrepresented people – especially Black and Latino workers – working remotely have a higher sense of belonging than they felt previously. 


So much for office culture as we once knew it. If office culture is intended to facilitate productivity, support work-life balance and promote equity and inclusion, working remote hasn’t simply entered the conversation; arguably, there’s nothing else remotely like it.


Factor 2: Connectivity 


We can all agree that a great way to accomplish work goals is through teamwork. Employers suggest what’s missing from today’s emerging new remote work model is the team piece, the healthy back-and-forths that can only happen when everyone is in the same room, preferably a conference room at HQ, ideally one equipped with a whiteboard. 


Workers reply there are plenty of ways to collaborate. New ways. Better ways. When it comes to brainstorming, bulky dry erase boards are optional, possibly even superfluous. From instant messaging to video conferencing (with breakout rooms) to collaborative whiteboards, technology  is making it easier than ever to work across space and time to turn ideas into action. These tools can also bring more organization and greater productivity to your team’s work. 


Creating and collaborating from anywhere is only half of it. Remote-first technology makes workplace culture both more expansive (recruit globally!) and more equitable (work from where it works for you!), which for companies that embrace it is helping to promote greater diversity and improve recruitment.


Factor 3: Creativity


Watercooler talk has a mythical place in America’s workplace lore. Whether or not an actual watercooler is involved, employers lament the loss of those casual, ad hoc conversations that help reinforce a sense of community, and can even spark big, transformative ideas. 


Workers say…meh. Those serendipitous encounters weren’t nearly as frequent as their employers would like to believe. Office politics was far a far more frequent occurrence and no one misses that. Remote work has a liberating aspect that enables workers to focus on their jobs, while eliminating the distractions that can make those jobs harder to do. 


And for those who can’t shake their attraction to watercooler chitchat, a flood of virtual watercooler technology is rushing in to fill that void. Applications like Donut and Gatheround help teams “connect around the watercooler” wherever it works best for them.  


Making remote work even better 


If the remote-first concept represents a powerful pivot in a positive workplace direction, there’s still work to be done. Hybrid isn’t a switch that can be flipped and forgotten.. There are plenty of steps workplace leaders can and need to take in order to realize hybrid’s promising rate of return. 

  • Lead by example. Workplace leaders needs to “walk the talk,” not simply pay lip service to their hybrid policies. Full/enthusiastic participation in both virtual and in-person interactions will promote strong relationships, eliminate proximity bias, and ensure hybrid workers don’t feel overlooked or marginalized by management.  

  • Mutually agree to your team’s flex work schedule. Don’t dictate it. Treat your employees like they’re adults and they’ll reward you by behaving like them. 

  • Encourage coming together, but do it in a smart way. A mix of virtual interaction with periodic, in-person gatherings – at HQ or even a conveniently located third space – is one way to go about building a rock-solid company culture tailor made for the new normal. 



As companies and workers contemplate their office return plans, forcing people back to the office is a risky gambit. Setting aside the fact that workplace choice improves productivity, efficiency and morale, that it allows people to spend more time doing their jobs than commuting to their jobs, it risks reversing advances in workplace efficiency that may have emerged (by necessity) during the pandemic. The idea is to build on those advances, not undermine them. Returning to the office shouldn’t mean turning back time. 


A forward-thinking hybrid approach, one that supports office-based and remote options, will benefit your employees and your business. If you think about it, office culture exists for your employees. It should work for them and empower them to do their best work. It should make them feel like they’re part of a team. It’s not about daily commutes, whiteboard sessions, or chance encounters at the watercooler or in the office kitchen. It’s about cultivating a workplace policy that responds to employee concerns and that meets your people where they are.


And when you do that, your business is sure to go places.

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