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Picture: 123RF/RAWPIXEL
Picture: 123RF/RAWPIXEL

It’s time to go back to the office. No-one wants to hear this, but eventually you’ll be commuting five days a week. Perhaps, as someone who worked from home most of her career, I’m not the right messenger. Nevertheless, it’s the truth.

I recently spoke with a 50-ish successful executive at a large media company. She said she never wanted to go back to the office. She loved working from her second home in Miami — or the resort in Mexico she just returned from. She said she was just as productive, if not more, working this way. I asked if she thought the arrangement was equally good for junior staff.

This executive had built valuable contacts, culture and camaraderie by logging many hours in the office with her co-workers while rising through the ranks. There is a lot of grunt work early in a career, but time in the trenches with colleagues, ordering takeaways when you work through dinner and going out for drinks afterward is what helps make it bearable. You form relationships that last the rest of your professional life.

So it’s not enough for young people to return to the office, they need to see and interact with senior staffers there, too. Their elder co-workers not only train them, but the time spent working together — in person — is how senior staff become invested in their junior colleagues’ success. It’s why they offer them new assignments, champion them for promotions and mentor them. It is critical to how careers progress. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to build those kinds of bonds through a computer screen.

The time spent working together — in person — is how senior staff become invested in their junior colleagues’ success.

The executive agreed that she benefited from spending days in the office when she was younger, and that senior staff had mentored her. I asked if she felt a need to repay that generosity by going back. She thought about it, and then argued that going to the office posed a health risk, so it’s different now.

Going back to work is emerging as a collective-action problem. Older, more established people don’t want to go back and don’t feel it’s necessary to do their jobs. But having them return to the office is important for workplace culture, long-term productivity and for passing skills and influence on to younger colleagues. If these older workers don’t return, there is less motivation for younger people to return, too. And right now not that many people are going back: office occupancy rates are only at 40% in the US, and are even lower in cities such as New York and San Francisco.

Returning to the office is critical not just for training younger workers but also for establishing office culture at all ages. If you don’t see your co-workers regularly, it’s easy to forget you like them. An otherwise friendly person can turn into that manager who exists solely to prevent your great ideas from coming to fruition, or the bore droning on too long in virtual meetings. Connecting with colleagues is a big part of what keeps people happy at work. A slow return to the office may be one reason quits are up.

True, going to the office may feel like a waste of time. It involves putting on nicer clothes and commuting, sometimes for long distances. Research by Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom and his co-authors estimate that working from home during the pandemic increased productivity as much as 5% (depending on the job), largely from avoiding a commute and having more quiet time.

But he explained on email that there can be too much of a good thing: “I see the WFH impact on productivity a bit like going to the gym — great in moderation but problematic in excess.”

He is concerned about the long-term impact on productivity from too much working from home. He says you need about three days in the office for many jobs to facilitate creativity, innovation and culture building.

Culture, retention and training is probably why many bosses are demanding people return to the office. Getting over a collective-action problem usually requires a little nudging. But the problem here is that the nudging might not work. Bloom finds that requiring in-office presence can make employers less competitive for talent. Employees may even accept as much as an 8% pay cut to keep the flexibility. As much as 15% of people say they plan to never go back to in-office work.  

So why not just go back two or three days a week? Bloom’s survey suggests that’s what most people who can work remotely plan to do. He thinks a hybrid model may be optimal productivity-wise, since it balances saving commuting time with enough in-person time. And the return to the office will probably start that way.

But it may not be sustainable. Eventually, the working-from-home option may become equivalent to the idea that you don’t have to answer your email on the weekend. Technically it’s a choice, but not one you can really make if you want to advance. Showing up every day signals more dedication and offers the opportunity to volunteer for big assignments, or just chat over coffee and decide something important with the other people who showed up that day.

How we work is always evolving. For most of human history people didn’t work in an office or factory. As technology changes so does the ideal working arrangement. We now have the technology to telecommute in many jobs, and the pandemic pushed that transition forward. But technology and culture don’t always change at the same rate.

Ideally, work-from-home will continue to exist in some form — perhaps as an option if you work on contract and crave more flexibility. Or you can use the option when you need it, such as when your child is sick. Otherwise, everyone needs to go back.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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