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Why forcing people back to the office is a stupid idea

2 Sep 2020 By Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

The UK government has launched a campaign encouraging people to return to workplaces, but there are at least five reasons this makes no sense, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Unlike most developed nations, Britain has launched a strong government campaign to push workers back to the office, de-emphasising health and safety concerns and warning people that working at home will make them ‘vulnerable’ to being sacked

Given how quickly people have adapted to the office-less age of work, it seems odd to suddenly embrace a return to the old normal, and ignore the proven benefits of more flexibility, efficiency and work-life integration that working from home, or at least a ‘hybrid’ model where people are free to decide where their work is done, provide (even if no system is perfect). Our newly released ManpowerGroup data on what workers want shows that a staggering 80 per cent of employees want more rather than less remote working – to improve their life quality and juggle the ever-increasing responsibilities that their personal and career goals demand. 

So why would we ask people to come back to the office full time? Other than the largely unproven myth that in-person meetings are necessary for effective collaboration, including innovation, there is the notion that firms are spending a great deal of money on real estate, so how can we justify having an empty office? This is comparable to wanting to eat the expired food in your fridge because you paid for it. 

There’s also the argument that humans are biologically prewired for in-person meetings, which is of course true. However, humans are also incredibly adaptable, which is why we are able to evolve, culturally and intellectually, to the point of overcoming some of our caveman instincts. All of the progress we have made advancing diversity and inclusion, making workplaces more meritocratic and fair, are a direct consequence of taming our precarious and archaic ape brains. 

In contrast, there are at least five good reasons to avoid forcing people back to the office:

  • Knowledge workers can do the vast majority of their work remotely, without experiencing any performance or productivity deficits.
  • The hardest part of the transition to virtual-only work has been achieved already, and with great results.
  • Forcing people to adjust to something they deem unsafe, irrational or counterproductive will decrease their engagement and loyalty, and in turn their performance. 
  • Forcing people to do anything, without giving them the choice, denotes a general lack of trust in them, and an inability to use logic and reason to persuade them (which would include a choice anyway).
  • The PR and reputational repercussions of adopting this old-school, rigid and unreasonable measure are likely to hurt businesses, extinguishing any potential gains from presentism (which are pretty unlikely in the first place).

Needless to say, there is still a pandemic on, so you may want to add both real and perceived health and safety issues. If people have been able to adjust to this unparalleled global health crisis, and cope with the economic and psychological implications, that is true testimony to their amazing resilience and adaptability – it is time to appreciate this and make things easier for people, not harder. 

It should also be noted that some of the unspoken reasons for wanting people back to the office are related to issues that we need to fix now, and should have fixed even before the pandemic. For example, moving beyond a culture of presentism where people are rewarded for showing off and pretending to work, managing impressions, politicking, being in the right place at the right time and saying the right thing to the right person. It is a lot harder to make the effort to measure what people actually produce and contribute to their employer, but laziness is not a valid excuse for not doing so, or asking people to return to work. 

If what people miss is the social connectedness with others – bonding and spending time with colleagues, cultivating friendships and nurturing camaraderie at work – well, that is mostly a first world problem. And it can be simply catered for by having a safe physical place, and appropriate guidelines, for people who choose to meet in person. Usually, we don’t need to force people to do what they want to do in the first place, and coming to the office is no exception.   

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at UCL and Columbia and chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup   

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