• Alan Shoebridge

Why don’t leaders and employees agree on remote work? They’re not having the right conversation

The debate over returning to the office – or not – intensified last week with hot takes from business leaders, authors, media gadflies and others who do not like the idea of working from home. And since they do not like remote work, it must be wrong for everyone and therefore needs to end to preserve the delicate balance of workplace norms. Or something like that.


Mostly, the negative assessments of working from home were made without supporting data or evidence.


Whenever the debate on this topic flares up like it’s doing now, it strikes me that something is missing from the conversation: the perspectives of employees who work remotely.


That missing perspective comes despite significant data being available regarding how much people like working remotely. That reality is rarely addressed by the naysayers. This study shows the current trend:


"The results of the American Opportunity Survey reflect sweeping changes in the US workforce, including the equivalent of 92 million workers offered flexible work, 80 million workers engaged in flexible work, and a large number of respondents citing a search for flexible work as a major motivator to find a new job.”
“Eighty-seven percent of workers offered at least some remote work embrace the opportunity and spend an average of three days a week working from home.”

In short, people like remote work and want to keep doing it. Unfortunately, many managers don’t have the same feelings. From CNBC:

“Among executives who have primarily worked completely remotely through the pandemic, 44% said they wanted to come back to the office every day. Just 17% of employees said the same.”
So why is this happening?

Overall, I think the disconnect between leaders and employees is happening because the wrong conversations about this issue are occurring.


The following scenario is how I believe too many discussions about returning people to work are playing out. Names are being withheld for obvious reasons, mainly because I invented this entire conversation.


Boss: “We’re going to need everyone to come back to the office starting next month.”

Employee: “Really? Why?”


B: “Well, I just feel like it would be better for productivity.”

E: “Hmmm. You recently mentioned that our productivity is higher than ever. Has something changed?”


B: “No. This is actually more about us seeing each other and connecting.”

E: “But, we see each other in video meetings every day. I feel more connected than ever.”


B: “We need moments of serendipity around the water cooler.”

E: (Confused look; no comment made).


B: “I would just feel better knowing that I can get ahold of you right away if something comes up.”

E: “Has there been a problem getting something quickly from me?”

B: “Well no."


B: I think it would be better for positioning you for a promotion if you’re here in the office every day.”

E: “That sounds good. How soon could I get a promotion if I came back to the office full-time?”

B: “It’s not that simple. I can’t guarantee anything about the timing of a promotion.”

E: “OK …”


B: “I heard a famous author say working from home is ruining society. It really concerns me.”

E: “Oh no. How is it doing that?”

B: “I don’t know. He just has a feeling. And he is too smart to be wrong.”


B: “Good talk. I’ll see you next month at the office. I’ll bring bagels!"

E: (Indistinct grumbling. Internally resolves to look at job postings with a remote/hybrid option).

--

Here’s the conversation that should have happened.


Boss: “Tell me what you like about working from home.”

Employee: “I really don’t miss the commute. It was taking me an hour each way every day.”


E: “I also like being able to see my kids in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon.”

E: “Having flexibility is so important to me right now.”

E: “And I feel more productive than ever.”

B: “I’m glad to hear this has been working out for you so well."


B: “Is there anything you do miss about working from the office?”

E: “I would like to see people on the team a bit more, but I think we can do that with occasional in-person meetings.


B: “I appreciate your perspective. I’m not planning any radical changes right now, but I want to make sure that we stay connected and engaged. I’ll be seeking more feedback from others on our team as well.”

E: “Thanks. I appreciate getting to share my thoughts on this.”

--


Moving forward in a better way

During the last three years, I’ve had direct conversations with more than 50 employees about what they think about working remotely.


During all of those conversations, I had one – yes, just one – employee tell me that they did not want to work from home at least part of the time. That employee preferred coming to the office daily, and I didn’t have any problem with that.


Everyone else who had been working remotely or in a hybrid arrangement just wanted to keep doing that. They all missed some of the personal connections of being in the office, but that wasn’t even close to outweighing the flexibility and other benefits of remote or hybrid work.


Not one person mentioned “serendipity” or expressed a fear that remote work was destroying society. That's so odd.


Where do we go from here?

We’re stuck in the messy middle of figuring out the right way to balance what employees want while resolving legitimate questions and reservations about how remote work impacts careers over long periods of time.


Nobody has all the answers about the right balance between in-person and remote work. And there are some people who prefer to be in-person more than remote or who really do need an office environment for one reason or another.


However, the toothpaste is not going back into the tube on remote work. As a leader, there is no reason to jump into making changes that your employees don’t want. If the work is getting done well, that is what matters most. Everything else can continue to evolve and develop over time.


Key takeaway

As a leader, don’t rush into any decisions about bringing everyone back to work. If you don’t have a good reason to do so or a plan to make the experience truly positive, you will damage your credibility with your team. Once you do that, it’s difficult to get it back. Tread carefully.

 
Additional resources

🎤 Podcast: The Big Winners and Losers From the Remote Work Revolution


💻 Article: Malcolm Gladwell gets blowback from remote workers: ‘I’m in my jammies and I’m just fine’


💻 Article: Office, home or hybrid: The remote work battle lines have been drawn

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