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What Can You Do When People Don't Want to Come to the Office?

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Image: Glasshouse Images - Alamy Stock Photo
The letter-writer in the advice column laid out her case calmly and with supporting facts: Since she had begun working remotely during the pandemic, her team had produced a record-setting performance, she had received favorable feedback despite working while sick and with uncertain childcare, and a return to office would violently disrupt her work-life balance. In her mind, she had proven that working from home took nothing from the company and benefitted a high performer. To her boss, none of that mattered so much as the worker planting herself in an office seat.
The worker was asking for advice: Should she try one more time to parley with her boss or should she just take another job?
This anonymous correspondent is playing out a dilemma some employees are facing now as their offices call them back to onsite work: Do they give up the work-life balance that remote work had given them—or do they give up this specific job with this specific employer and take on the short-term stress of job-hunting and adjusting to a new job for the presumed long-term benefit of continued control over their time?
Apple employees made the news for protesting the company's three-day-a-week onsite work policy; the group Apple Together is asking that employees be allowed to work out their individual arrangements with their managers. The arguments for doing the extra managerial work to figure out onsite agreements for individuals are compelling; people will want to be able to control their schedules to accommodate disabilities, health concerns, childcare priorities or simply a work style that thrives in a flexible work environment. Apple Together isn't asking for abolishment of onsite working; it's asking for employees to be seen as individuals, not a mass with a one-size-fits-all hybrid work policy.
The group is also asking for workplace leaders to acknowledge that there is no going "back to normal," but rather, we have enough data to forge a new normal for how we work. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School, said that Apple, like other companies, had to reinvent its office culture, which it invested so heavily in when it opened its multibillion-dollar headquarters in 2017.
“It was an investment centered on the abiding faith that physical presence and having people around is part of their secret sauce,” she said, “and COVID debunked that perspective.”
Dr. Neeley, who has advised companies on remote and hybrid work, said that employees across the workforce often push back on policies that require them to go to the office for a certain number of days a week, something she referred to as “the idea of butts in the seat.”
Instead, she said, it is often more effective when companies ask their employees to come in for certain activities that benefit from in-person collaboration.
Workplace leaders have had to deal with a lot of challenges in the past few years, from "How do I make sure my company can go all-remote in a few days?" to "When do I safely bring people back?" Now they're facing the latest challenge: What do you do when your workers push back against returning to the office?
Answering that question will require asking and answering a few more questions, like:
  • Are you facing an industry talent shortage? If so, will imposing a return-to-work policy hand your competitors a whole new pool of job recruits?
  • Can you quantify both the positives and negatives of remote and hybrid work? If a team's productivity has been high while they're working varied hours in varied locations, what is the business rationale for messing with what works by making them all come in? What short-term hits are you willing to take in terms of morale or loss of productivity?
  • Have you and other workplace leaders thought about how to adapt or change company culture if people continue to resist a blanket return-to-office policy?
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all approach for the best working arrangement for employees, there is no one answer to any of these questions. Determining how the come-to-office policiesor even keeping a physical office—play in the enterprise's larger business goals and success is an ongoing process that requires the same responsiveness, flexibility, and creativity that have characterized the last two years.

This article first appeared in the WorkSpace Connect newsletter, a weekly newsletter dedicated to discussing topics and insights related to today's evolving workplace. To sign up for the newsletter, please click this link to register today