Last year was supposed to be the year of returning to the office. The same could be said for 2021, and even the second half of 2020. The office seems to have become a place where we're always 'returning' but never quite 'arriving.'
Although office occupancy rates have risen meaningfully, they are still nowhere near pre-pandemic norms in most of the country. In most big cities, offices are still empty more than half the time.
So, what have we learned about hybrid work over the past 12 months?
Hybrid work is the norm. The idea of a tug of war between managers and employees over spending time in the office has been a bit exaggerated. Polls have shown consistently that employees do value some degree of face time and want to be in the office roughly two days a week. Managers would prefer three. For those keeping score at home, that's a difference of … one day.
'Overwhelmingly, managers are pretty much aligned with employees,' Stanford's Nicholas Bloom says. The exceptions he has found are people who have '30-plus years of work experience, and have been very successful and have done that all in person … but they are real outliers.' Instead, most bosses are gradually becoming comfortable with managing and evaluating employees they don't see every day — and not with creepy surveillance software, which Bloom dismisses as 'awful.'
One-size-fits-all arrangements don't work. It's tempting to look for best practices that can be transferred across teams and companies. But what strikes me about the last 12 months is the experimentation that has taken place. Some teams (and some employees) are going to benefit from being together more often. Others will thrive with more autonomy.
'It's more difficult to make blanket statements now than it was even a year ago,' says Barbara Larson, a professor of management at the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.
The reality is that every team and every employee is going to be in a slightly different situation. Someone who works primarily with clients in other cities or countries is essentially a fully remote employee whether they are in an office or working from home. A person without a lot of experience may need more in-person mentoring. Remote work has been a boon for people with disabilities.
Long commutes are the chief obstacle to in-person work. The biggest reason so many workers are still staying home isn't because they are antisocial, or quiet quitting, or want to wear sweatpants. It's because the commute gobbles up hours of the day, and the internet has made the trek optional. That's why RTO rates have remained lower in the cities with the longest commutes.
Finally, hybrid is about more than just showing up. Driving into the office only to send emails or sit on Zoom is annoying — and a missed opportunity. We could all probably make a bit more effort to maximize our in-person time, whether that's mentoring or just making small talk. Those social bonds are part of what make work more than just a grind.
Bloomberg Opinion/Tribune News Service
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