Work from home is one of the best things to happen to workers and the companies that employ them. Amidst the pandemic, WFH comes out as a win for everyone. Commute-free workers have the ability to focus on work without gridlock or the distraction of workplace drama. Hard workers benefit from improved meritocracy where employees are evaluated by the quality of their work, not office politics or conference room yelling matches.
There are good reasons for people to work in close proximity. One of the greatest predictors of employee retention is if the employee has a friend at work. These relationships are hard to foster on Zoom. But return-to-office mandates aren’t about friendship. Amazon, Apple, Yahoo, and other organizations expect employees to return to the office in September. Amazon, for example, argues that Distribution Center employees don’t have a choice so office workers should stand in solidarity.
But WFH is successful. Productivity increased when employees no longer wandered acres of office space to sit in conference rooms rather than join meetings on Zoom in seconds. People stopped lamenting awkward interactions at their cubicles. They found ideation better on a walk than on a white board.
Few employees want to return to the office. According to a Pew study, 71% of surveyed employed people worked from home during the pandemic and 54% want to keep it that way. Enlightened employers like Zillow and Twitter let employees work from home indefinitely. WFH is one of the few if only bright lights of the pandemic.
The widely held belief in the tech industry is that physical presence fosters productivity. Google designs its buildings to maximize unplanned interactions, encouraging engineers to gather at the water cooler. Google and other employers claim that unplanned interactions drive creativity, innovation, and revenue. But studies indicate this is untrue. Harvard Business School research shows there are no demonstrable benefits from workers’ physical proximity.
The modern office environment is set up to benefit the few, not the many. Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow says group dynamics diminish output. “The idea that you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias. And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”
There are ways to foster creativity without office-based war rooms or face-to-face brainstorming sessions. Any creative ideation session is typically monopolized by a few employees while the rest of the team stares at their laptops. Break the groups up and give them new tools. The best ideas come from outside the organization or at least outside its four walls.
Management’s grip on office-based work isn’t about the pandemic or people avoiding a commute, it’s about trust. Unenlightened managers see “butts in seats” as a proxy for performance; they don’t trust people to be productive if they can’t see them working.
Companies don’t make money because people are sitting at desks; they make money because people do their jobs intelligently and get results. Managing a team means communicating what’s expected of them, measuring their output, and rewarding or punishing them based on those outcomes. Thirty years ago the legendary Intel CEO Andy Grove famously chained the company doors shut at 8:30 am to deliver a clear message to laggards; Show up on time or work elsewhere. Is the most important employee contribution a divot on the chair?
One argument for WFH is how wildly successful companies have been over the past 18 months. What pandemic? The tech industry, for example, has successfully hired millions of people they’ve never met, closed record venture funding they’ve never signed, and achieved historic sales goals without trade shows all while sitting in spare bedrooms, in slippers, with two-day beards.
WFH and its myriad benefits are here to stay. Great employees want thoughtful attention, not conference rooms and physical reminders of the hierarchy. It doesn’t pay to look over employees’ shoulders. Give them clear direction, measure their progress, and help them achieve more for the organization from their homes, the place where they want to work.