Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
More than two years into our national experiment in working from home, one of the most popular arguments for returning to the office is about collaboration: Employees need to be on site, we’re told, because collaborating with one another has been harder to do when everyone is working from separate locations.
That’s part of the impetus behind the growing popularity of hybrid schedules, where employees work part of the week from home and part from the office. Hybrid schedules are supposed to provide the best of both worlds: all the benefits of working from home (no commute, more focus, hanging out with the dog, whatever it may be) plus the benefit of in-person collaboration with colleagues. The problem is … much of the time, it isn’t happening that way.
Instead, a lot of people who have returned to their offices for some or all of the week have found that they’re the only ones there, or others are staying isolated in their offices, and all communication still happens over email, Slack, or Zoom. As a result, they’re spending time commuting to and from the office and dealing with all the hassles of in-person work but without any of the promised payoff.
This person’s experience mirrors many other people’s:
Our leadership has mandated first one day, then two days, and now three days in person at the office. The stated logic is that going to the office allows valuable (and in some cases spontaneous) face-to-face interactions and collaborations to occur that just don’t happen over Zoom.
If that were true, I wouldn’t love it but maybe I could get on board. However … it’s not, at least not for me. At least 50% of the time that I come in, I am literally the only member of my team (or of the group of employees with whom I typically interact outside of my team) on the premises. I spend two hours commuting—two extra hours away from my family—to come sit in an office and literally speak to no one the entire day (except by email or maybe Zoom … like I would have done at home). I am growing more and more resentful each time that I arrive at my desk and see the offices of my other team members empty and dark. I feel like several hours a week of my time are being stolen from me (and my family) for no reason at all, and my motivation for work is tanking.
It’s not just needless commutes that are aggravating people. It’s also the sense that companies are forcing people back into old ways—ways that come with not-insignificant inconvenience—without any real justification for it. Here’s more of what’s been landing in my inbox:
• “I’m typing this from my office where I’m the only one in my suite and have been all week. More colleagues are physically present across the building but all my work is done on a computer and I have no reason to interact with them in person. It’s just the old logic that you’re not really working if you’re not in the office (except for the higher-ups, who do whatever they want). Thankfully I have a short commute, but the feeling of being watched/babysat is definitely weighing me down. I loved working from home and was very productive there. I’m currently job searching and only applying to remote jobs.”
• “We are all required to come in on a certain day of the week. But we’re not allowed to be within 6 feet of each other for COVID measures, so most collaboration is still done virtually, while all of us sit in the same room, listening to each other’s headsets echo when one of us talks. I drew the short stick and am the only person who comes in on Fridays. Management says this is to make sure there is ‘coverage’ … but none of us can figure out why physical coverage is important. We don’t get walk-ups. Even if we did, hardly anyone is in the office on a given day to ‘walk up,’ and people are used to just pinging each other on IM now. We’ve asked but they won’t give us a reason why.”
• “For the ‘spontaneous face-to-face interactions’ argument, when my team was in the office, we were scattered on a huge open floor. … We always talked via a messaging system. Now that we’re home, not much has changed. The one day we all have to be in the office each month, we have one long catch-up meeting, then go back to our desk to … chat on messaging systems.”
• “My commute is only 30 minutes but I go in to sit in my office and get back on Zoom, I could do that at home. And I LIKE working in person, at least part of the time. Yet I am still expected to show my face at the office. I don’t get it and it is seriously burning me from wanting to go in.”
• “My job has determined my group only has to come in one day a week for ‘collaboration’ and so we can have in person meetings. But that simply does not happen. All the meetings are on Teams/Zoom and we have increasing numbers of remote people (like in different states) on our team that make having Zoom meetings a necessity. It’s a struggle to not be so resentful of that one day a week since I’m trying really had to be grateful for the other four WFH; those were a huge win for us. But man, oh man. To just sit all day and just have back to back Zoom meetings when I could’ve just done that home! Why did I waste all that stress and commuting time?! It really, really feels like corporate just wants bodies in this sparkly new building they built and there is no other reason to be there.”
It’s not that hybrid work schedules couldn’t work—but for a lot of teams, they’re clearly not working in their current incarnations. Some of that could be because we’re still not out of the pandemic, and there’s not much point in making people come in if safety concerns mean that they’re still going to take all their meetings via Zoom. In that respect, some of the return to offices may have been premature.
But companies also need to be smarter about how to make hybrid scheduling work. Just telling people to come in two days a week doesn’t facilitate collaboration. A more thoughtful approach would be for teams to map out what they truly need to collaborate on, with whom, and when, and then plan schedules accordingly (and acknowledge that some weeks there may be no need to come in at all). Instead, though, too many companies have simply ordered people back on site without doing enough to ensure in-person work is working again … and without devising concrete plans to ensure there’s a payoff to all those long commutes.