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The “Return to the Office” Experiment

  • Publish Date: Posted about 2 years ago
  • Author: Rick Sanders

The “Return to the Office” Experiment

Remote work has been an overwhelming success for both employees and employers. People have adapted. Productivity and efficiency are up. Work life balance is better.

​The “Return to the Office” Experiment

But what about the downsides? Sometimes we forget the joys we get from other people. Looking into someone’s eyes. Seeing their smile. Hearing their words it’s just not the same experience virtually.

With the benefits of social interaction in mind, our marketing group recently decided to take the plunge and congregate at the home office for a three-day marketing summit. There were six of us local to Atlanta, and one member who flew in from Dallas. It was the first time in 18 months that our entire team was in person together.

Everyone had been toying around with the idea for a few months, and as marketing people, we are naturally collaborative and outgoing. We missed the camaraderie and wanted to see how the in-person experience would differ from the routineness of Zoom calls that have been our de facto meeting space for the last year and a half.

While the fear of COVID is still very palpable, we felt like we needed to see what it was like, and the thought of holding an extended marketing summit to do planning virtually appealed to no one.

It was all kind of surreal.

There was of course the natural shock to the system of setting an early wake up call, dressing up a bit, hopping in the car and commuting, remembering our door codes, donning masks in common spaces, and following other COVID protocols management had put in place.

Then there was the office space itself. A reception desk with no receptionist, but a thermometer and bottle of disinfectant instead. Inside, a huge, cavernous floor filled with empty cubicles, frozen in time. Unwatered plants, calendars stuck on March 2020, and aged post-it notes still strewn about. No noise except for the HVAC; no people or conversations to be heard. Worst of all, no snacks in the kitchen.

It was a similar vibe to the horror movie A Quiet Place, except without the aliens.

Soon, that all changed. We took over the empty training room. Enter our human marketing caravan, equipped with music, food, big plans, games, stress balls, interesting presentations, and special guests.

And we got a lot of work done. There is no substituting for the kind of creative interactions and output you get when you actually sit next to someone (six feet apart of course) and gauge their body language, facial interactions, speech patterns, observations and asides, in person. There is a certain energy level and vitality that cannot be achieved remotely.

In our post-meeting debrief, here were some of the pros:

  • “Had fun collaborating”

  • “Easier to bounce ideas off people and think outside the box”

  • “Learning new things from different people”

  • “Nice to get out of the house and be in a new environment”

  • “Better engagement”

As for the cons:

  • “Hard to wake up earlier (took some getting used to)”

  • “Needed more movement than usual because I couldn’t get up on my own time”

  • “Traffic (having to fill up gas a lot)”

  • “Difficult to multitask like usual”

It was tiring for sure. While working from home has proved to be very productive across all sectors of workers, people have also adjusted their at-home work lives to factor in breaks, diversions, naps, and other niceties that make the day go faster.

One team member summed up her experience from the week nicely:

"For me, going back into the office for three days in a row seemed like it was going to be harder than it actually was. Thinking about it brings about a little stress, but actually doing it was not bad at all and it was really nice to break up my routine and be around people during the day. I feel like our ability to share new ideas and brainstorm has been hindered being separated and I underestimated how differently my brain thinks when I am around other people. It feels more energizing in person and felt like we were able to accomplish more in terms of new ideas over the three days in person than if we had all be separated. It feels like some people think they really don’t want to go into the office, but once they actually do it and are around other people, they may find it was exactly what they needed."

We all agreed that this in-person gathering was a good thing and needed to continue in some form.

Going cold turkey and coming into the office five days a week seems like a stretch at this point. So, the hybrid model may work best. But how many days in the office? And which days in the office? And how do we accommodate the flexible schedules that everyone has become accustomed to?

If you’re dreading going back to the office, it might help to have a reminder of how in-person work can actually benefit you — not just your company.

According to Harvard Business Review:

  • Culture. It’s hard to start a brand new job remotely. We learn how to navigate a workplace’s culture by watching other people and how they interact. In general, new employees who work remotely are likely to find it harder to get things done — if you can’t watch what people are doing and if others can’t notice when you’re struggling, then everything about the job has to be taught more explicitly.

  • Collaboration. It’s harder for institutional knowledge to make its way around in a remote environment. A lot of information sharing happens through short, informal conversations between people over the course of a normal workday. Working from home requires that every interaction be scheduled or take place over text.

  • Purpose. Another benefit of spending time with colleagues in the office is that it reinforces the sense that you share a common mission. The phenomenon of goal contagion is a reflection that when you observe the actions of other people, you often adopt their same goals.

There is a strong bias for people to prefer continuing to work at home, but these reasons make a strong case why at least some in-person work may improve your career happiness long term.

We will see how it goes.