Exclusive Survey: Return to Office Isn’t Driving Collaboration
Only 23% of VC-backed firms saw more collaboration after returning to in-person work. A third saw no benefit at all.
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For most teams, the re to office isn’t worth the cost, a survey of hiring teams from recruiting firm Underdog suggests. The data, which has not yet been reported, showed only 23% of non-remote teams noticed more collaboration in the office. What’s more, 33% reported no noticeable benefits at all.
Most of those surveyed are returning to the office, with even hybrid teams struggling to adjust. Out of more than 100 venture-backed companies, 9% are back full-time, with 55% on a hybrid schedule. Asked how employees are adjusting, hybrid companies reported an average team sentiment of 4/10.
The Return to Office Looks Different From the Top
Many factors affect employees’ feelings about return-to-office mandates, including identity and seniority. Despite recent reports that Gen Z misses the office, mandatory office time seems to be harming overall morale. As new policies took effect, engagement dropped sharply, according to Slack’s April 2022 Future Forum report. For teams with little to no flexibility, the impact was even worse.
The great executive-employee disconnect is widening as the two groups experience different levels of flexibility. Executives feel 1.3x higher job satisfaction than non-executives, according to the report. Those employees were also twice as likely to work 5 days from the office, and felt twice as much work-related stress and anxiety.
While some find it easier to feel a sense of belonging in a physical office, the experience isn’t universal. Some marginalized employees actually feel more belonging in a remote office without the constant reminders of their identity. (To be fair, remote work has also made harassment easier. But an inclusion strategy that depends on seeing toxic behavior in person is a losing bet.)
Remote Collaboration Isn’t Worse, It’s Just Different
Of course, there’s no denying remote teams collaborate differently than in-person ones. For example, in a recent study of Microsoft, remote employees didn’t replace every in-person meeting with a virtual one. Instead, they shifted to asynchronous work, and communicated less across teams.
That study’s findings could be read as a strike against remote work. But as the last few years have shown, asynchronous work doesn’t kill innovation. Plenty of apps have emerged that make it easy to do asynchronous or even silent, in-person meetings. And really, who would argue that the key to unlocking employees’ ingenuity is more in-person meetings?
Creative work is complex. We’re only beginning to grasp the factors that drive effective brainstorming, including the role of time alone. And if innovation truly depended on in-person meetings, we’d see a lot more fully remote teams being disrupted by their office-bound competition.
Managers Shouldn’t Get Cocky
While quits remained high in June, the tide could be turning in the labor market. Recent layoffs have stoked recession fears, sparking a backlash in the C-suite against employees’ demands. Emboldened by an economic downturn, some leaders may say “so what?” to unhappy employees tired of the mandatory commute. But the job market is cooling, not freezing. The hardest people to replace still have plenty of options, and are often the ones who value their autonomy the most.
Like so many areas of conflict at work, return-to-office policies are about control. In a big enough company, some people will always take advantage of the system. But managers treating remote work the way parents treat screen time—giving employees a little WFH, as a treat—is paternalistic and self-defeating. It sacrifices everyone’s productivity by focusing on the margins. And it denies the reality that most employees, most of the time, work better without the mandatory commute.
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Return-to-office decisions are fraught, and have wide-ranging impacts. With those stakes, it makes sense for leaders to weigh all the evidence. Two years into the new normal, the data on remote work is promising. Spotify’s “Work From Anywhere” policy led to higher retention and more diversity.
If Slack’s data is right, executives enjoy the office more than anyone else. That’s fine, and in-person work still has benefits. But requiring everyone to come in regularly, with no accommodations, is short-sighted and counterproductive. And if recruiters don’t see the point of a mandatory return, it might be worth asking if the gap between employees’ and their leaders’ experiences is tipping the scale.