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Want to Go Back to the Office? You’re Not Alone


Picture of business worker against city skyline
After months of working in our basement, my husband ventured back into his office in downtown Chicago this week. It wasn’t an “official” return — that won’t come till July 6 when re-occupancy formally begins. But, he’s been itching to get back to the office ever since shelter in place took effect. So, when his organization asked for a volunteer to babysit the space during some maintenance work, he jumped at the chance.
I’m not taking his distress during this period of working from home personally. I know his tech setup here is less than optimal, but perhaps more than that, he’s a pretty social guy and so I suspect he most misses the types of interactions — spur-of-the-moment conversations and brainstorming, formal group meetings, and out-of-office lunches — that are only possible when colleagues are physically in the same place. Businesses have long talked about the value of having connected and collaborative employees, and the pandemic shouldn’t change that.
Sometimes, though, I do feel like he’s alone in his eagerness to return to the office.
The business storyline we commonly hear is that remote working has been going so well that many companies have given their pledge to allow widespread remote work after the shelter-in-place orders lift. Why? They’ve polled their workers, and have discovered that many have so welcomed their work-from-home (WFH) experiences that they see no reason to return to the office. High-tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have been among those setting the tone.
For these reasons, this headline on an article published this week by Business Insider leapt out at me: “Microsoft employees would rather work from physical offices than work remotely, CEO Satya Nadella says.” So contrary to so much of the popular rhetoric! (And now I know my husband isn’t such an oddball.)
To be sure, nobody at Microsoft is keen on rushing back to an open office. What they’ve made clear, Nadella said, is that they want dedicated workspaces with good network connectivity, according to Business Insider. The article quotes Nadella as saying, “In the Seattle region, where we have sent a lot of people home, we’re realizing people would rather have a workspace at work once the COVID-19 crisis goes away.”
Indeed, not having good network connectivity is tiresome. Circling back to my WFH grump, my husband been using a personal hotspot rather than further tax our home Wi-Fi network that I use for work and my son for distance learning. Seamless connectivity for video meetings and other online work is a constant worry for all of us.
Of course, despite Microsoft employees’ stated preference for working in the office, Nadella shared a caveat — and here’s where it converges with the norm. Remote work, at scale, must be an option for “every function,” Nadella said. But going all-in one way or the other isn’t going to work. As Business Insider reported, Nadella said he believes companies should be evaluating how well-suited remote work is on a role-by-role, function-by-function basis, while leaving plenty of space available for people to work from the office, too.
While this makes sense, I can’t help but wonder what will become of organizational effectiveness and the employee experience when some people get to work at home and others are asked to return to the office. Will the workplace become a toxic environment for reasons beyond COVID-19?