Back Office — How to think about ‘return-to-work.’

September 22, 2022
9 min read
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash
“Everyone is entitled to their own nostalgia.”
— James Wolcott

Office occupancy is down.

According to data from Kastle systems, which monitors keycard swipes in office buildings, occupancy rates hover at less than 50% of pre-pandemic norms.

Plenty lament the office and miss the days of yore.

Columnist Peggy Noonan, in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, doesn’t want to see office life end. “The decline in office life is going to have an impact on the general atmosphere of the country. There is something demoralizing about all the empty offices, something post-greatness about them.”

Noonan isn’t alone. Malcolm Gladwell fans were outraged by the mop-headed author’s opinion that “it’s not in your best interest to work from home.”

CEOs from J.P.Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Tesla, Starbucks, Morgan-Stanley, Workday, and Visa have all gone on record advocating for a return-to-office.

Who knew it would be CEOs advocating against change?

Not Francis Saele. The workplace futurist continues “to be amazed by how many leaders in corporate management still believe that a return to the office—and the past—would be a good thing. Habits are hard to break, and for many, the concept of an office full of people is an addiction.”

Seven tropes are trotted out, like show ponies, arguing for a return to the past.

It’s for the young people.

“My mind goes first to the young. People starting out need offices to learn a profession, to make friends, meet colleagues, find romantic partners and mates.” Peggy Noonan’s argument summarizes the in-office apprenticeship that worked for Boomers and Gens X and Y. 

The argument, therefore, should apply to Gen Z.

Not so fast. 

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the assumption that all generational cohorts are the same. Whatever your age, you’re old enough to know other people your age who have a different outlook on life. Think about that, and then recognize any statement that starts with the word generation is gibberish with a splash of mumbo-jumbo.

Case in point—one recent headline from Business Insider: “Gen Z actually hates working from home.” Another, also from Business Insider, two months earlier, “Return-to-office is driving Gen Z to quit.”

Head spinning.

Is it easier to build social relationships while physically together? Probably. Is mentoring and teaching more straightforward? It’s certainly more well-proven. Does that mean everyone wants to do it that way? No.

Katherine Hu, a Washington DC-based writer, an assistant at The Atlantic, and proud Gen Z’er,  wrote that "offices will never be the social hubs they once were." She’s OK with that. As she sees it, “the pandemic has shifted long-term thinking about the necessity of weaving together one’s work and social lives.”

Because: Innovation.

This is the myth of the water cooler.

Chance meetings over a plastic container release a creative spark. That spark delivers an idea. The idea is poked at, prodded, and wrestled to the ground. A fluid mix of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration is added. Et voila, innovation.

Except: hogwash.

There is no evidence that water coolers promote innovation. It’s a myth from an analog age. When memos were mimeographed and carbon-copied. Proximity mattered because that’s what determined the flow of knowledge. 

The bearer of the water-cooler myth: Managing the Flow of Technology, a book by Thomas Allen. 

In 1977, Allen found that people are four times more likely to chat with someone six feet away than with someone 60 feet away. Amazingly, before email, cell phones, asynchronous documents, Slack, and any other kind of technology, colleagues on separate office floors almost never communicated with each other.

Like the “for the young people” argument, there are two sides to the innovation one. For every study saying proximity doesn’t matter, there’s another saying it does. This one, published in Nature, found that video calls reduce collaboration and the generation of novel ideas.

But; maybe-not.

Successful companies have innovated and built value—remotely—for years. Wikipedia killed an industry category without an office building or a company. Automattic, the company behind thirty percent of the world’s websites, has 1,100 employees spread across 77 cities. Gitlab, a DevOps platform used by IBM, Sony, Goldman Sachs, and NASA—to innovate—has no problems innovating remotely. Gitlab wrote the manifesto on remote work.

According to McKinsey research, “over the past two years, countries around the world have set records for new business formation, new patents issued, venture capital invested, and more.”

Culture needs buildings.

This may be the lamest argument.

Buildings signal a culture, they are not the culture. Go to J.P. Morgan’s New York headquarters, and the building projects power and wealth. The ground floor entryway is a vast open, unused space clad in glass and marble.

This is culture as a symbol. 

But the motifs on the wall are rarely signals of the culture of a company. More often than not, like an Instagram filter, they’re what the company aspires to be, not its reality.

Culture needs a campfire, not a building. 

Culture needs people sharing and swapping stories. Every gathering, every group, and every community has its unwritten rules and its norms. Each has its own culture. That culture is shaped by leaders who establish and promote those norms. Those norms signal “how we do things around here.”

If you need a building, you’re doing it wrong.

Future Forum’s research shows that culture gets better with remote work. According to Brian Elliot, leader of the Future Forum and SVP at Slack, “culture is about how we work, not where we work: "Sense of belonging" is lowest for people working full-time in the office. Full-time office workers score lower on every dimension of our Pulse from access to resources to productivity.”

To shape culture, focus on the rituals and norms.

Manchester United is one of the biggest football teams in the world. It has an army of fans. Most of them have never met each other. Most of them have never been to Old Trafford. But they all know what it is to be a Man U fan. Those fans know the stories and the folklore. They have the uniform.

‘Whatabout’ fairness.

Your colleagues on the factory floor are in.

The chemists working on the lab benches go to the office. This is the heavy machinery argument, laced with whataboutism. If you operate heavy machinery for a living, you have to be where the heavy machinery is. That is, until technology advances to the point that you can tele-operate the heavy machinery. 

It’s the argument Elon Musk relied on in his infamous memo.

To Tesla employees: “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. This is less than we ask of factory workers.”

This is a tough argument to receive, loaded with guilt-tripping and emotional blackmail. But if your job is to write code, you won’t be doing that on a factory floor. 

The passive-aggressive “moments that matter”

Moments that matter are akin to “moments of truth” in a customer journey. The pivotal points in a customer’s relationship with a brand that either sweeten or sour it. In HR, according to Gartner, moments that matter are “the moments that impact an employee’s organizational experience most significantly throughout their day, year and career.”

Labeling a live experience a “moment that matters” sends a signal.

That signal is that the other moments don’t matter. Or don’t matter as much. When corporate communications overflow your inbox with “moments that matter”—all based in or around an office—that signaling gets a little passive-aggressive.

What about the moment when you worked, at your computer, alone, on a really hard problem for your company? Does that moment matter? Or when you re-configured the marketing campaign with your team, asynchronously, over a period of weeks. Did those moments matter?

These little well-intentioned signals can become another straw on a camel’s back.

If you are not in the office, you won’t get promoted.

This is an argument that’s quickly turning into a cliché. 

Visa CEO Al Kelly admits that “a job can be done at home. But I’m not certain a career is built.” He goes on to reflect on his storied career and argues that he wouldn’t be CEO today if he wasn’t in the office.

It’s a benevolent variation of the “what about the young people” argument, told from a bully pulpit of power, reflecting on a career that started in the last century.

It’s moonshine, sprinkled with fairy dust, and laced with drivel.

The argument says that we, as an organization, have managers and a culture that cannot lead in a new, distributed world. What’s more, along with all the other systemic ‘isms’ we allow in our culture, we will add a new one: systemic out-of-sight-out-of-mind-ism. There is a fancy name for it. Availability bias: the phenomenon where people believe things to be true because they are easier to recall.

To be sure, some companies will operate this way. 

A “Zoom ceiling” will reinforce a “glass ceiling.” For companies that operate a remote-first approach to hybrid work—Allstate, Yelp, Spotify, Splunk, TaskRabbit, Commvault—there will not be a Zoom ceiling.

Smarter companies will measure the effect of remote work on promotion rates, just as they do with their DEI efforts.

It’s not all on the company, though. There’s an onus on the employee to signal in remote work, one that ultimately will benefit them.

The remote people will be the first to go in the coming recession.

I have no doubt that in some companies, this argument will be true.

It’s the underlying threat in Peggy Noonan’s opinion piece. “The balance of power will change if the slowing economy leads to layoffs and hiring freezes.”

Let’s stipulate that any market is cyclical—it has ups and downs. The job market is no exception. WFH might actually be helping inflation. At the moment, the US labor market is on a hot streak. It hasn’t slowed down. 


It will at some point. Then companies will cut. Some have already started with layoffs and hiring freezes. If HR and Finance handle that as a spreadsheet exercise, it makes a mockery of every statement ever made by that organization about “values,” “purpose,” and “principles.”

Doing that undoes all the hard work to compete for talent in an up cycle of the market. Compound that with the fact that social media and sites like Glassdoor and Reddit make hiring practices and the culture of organizations much more transparent. 

Employees are voting with their feet. It’s time to take off the rose-tinted glasses. It’s time to see the new world of work for the innovative place it is. Even if that place is remote.

See the post that first assembled these arguments here.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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