The only thing to fear is...culture erosion, productivity, and profit loss?
So why are organizations known for progressive decision-making—like Apple—returning to outdated return-to-office-mandates? Fear. More fear leads to a loss of control, which leads to more fear. It's a toxic cycle that does not benefit business owners nor employees.
Fear #1: Culture erosion
In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, Cathy Merrill, chief executive officer of Washingtonian Media, expressed her "worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work." Her position—like that of many CEOs attached to the idea of returning to the office full-time—revolves around the core belief that we "rely on office cultures—established practices, unspoken rules, and shared values, established over the years in large part by people interacting in person." This belief perpetuates the idea that employees who remain at home will miss out on the "20 percent of [your] job [that is] outside one's core responsibilities." It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone's birthday—things that drive office culture." In Merrill's view, if the employee is not present to participate in those extras and contribute to the culture, the employer has a strong incentive to reconsider that employee's value to the organization, let them go, or change their status to a contractor.
Fear #2: Lack of productivity
Many organizations express concerns similar to Merrill. While they may not be as vocal, they're also not as organized or prepared to back their arguments. Fast Company recently reported on the reasons why workers are calling B.S. on leaders about returning to the office, citing a recent survey completed by McKinsey & Company (Alexander, Smet, Langstaff & Ravid), that reveals two-thirds of employers surveyed "have not communicated a post-pandemic office strategy or have only vaguely done so." In place of a real strategy that will steer an organization forward during this global workplace shift, organization leaders cling to what they know, in part due to fear of a loss of control.
The line of thinking goes something like this: if managers can't see employees working, they're not working at the same high standard as in-office work. As reported by Fast Company, one worker surveyed complained that [their] manager "wanted butts in seats because we couldn't be trusted to [work from home] even though we'd been doing it since last March," adding: "I'm giving my notice on Monday." Another, whose company issued a two-week timeline for all to return to the office, griped: "Our leadership felt people weren't as productive at home. While as a company we've hit most of our goals for the year. . . Makes no sense."
Fear #3: Lack of mentorship opportunities and career growth
Some established industry giants are not so shy or open-minded about the future of remote work flexibility. One of the most vocal opponents of long-term remote work is Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon, who expressed his opinion to the BBC that Goldman Sachs would not be endorsing remote work flexibility. In Solomon’s view, "a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture [remote work] is not ideal for us. And it's not a new normal. It's an aberration that we're going to correct as soon as possible." Leaders like Solomon go on to cite generation Z, and millennial employees who are looking for a lot of mentorship in their career path, the kind of mentorship they believe can only be achieved onsite, in in-person, meetings, and conversations.
Fear #4: Recouping real estate costs
Many CEOs have invested heavily in office buildings and don't want them to go to waste. As a result, they believe that they have to fill their offices—which have already been paid for—to increase productivity and profit. This fear does not take into account all the ways companies can step into remote flexibility and redesign systems in a way that supports strategic business goals.