Return to the office. Not so fast – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

The pandemic handed us a Rubik’s Cube, transforming how and where we work.” – Gleb Tsipursky

After almost three years, the existence of remote work has become a requirement for many workers. They feel more productive, more comfortable, and are happy to make their own hours, perfect for a lot of working parents and for the laid-back lifestyle of Generation Z. As we know, many executives are now demanding workers come back to the physical office space for more than just “face time”. Managers want to re-establish clear lines of communication, collaboration, and keep people up to date on organizational matters.

The lack of people in the office stymies the old management habit of “Managing By Walking Around”. Back in 1982, when Tom Peters wrote “In Search of Excellence” most managers hid in their offices, with secretaries as their gatekeepers. Peters introduced to the general public, the concept of a more fluid management style, urging managers to decamp from their office sanctuaries and see what was really going on if they wanted to achieve excellence. According to Peters, “Management by Walking Around” was practiced by those organizations leading in their business sectors in that era, like Toyota or Hewlett Packard. With no one to walk around to see or chat with, managers, post pandemic, began to wonder what was really going on with the business, since row after row of empty cubicles greeted them every day. And it was frustrating to “Zoom” in on people randomly, as they may otherwise be occupied.

In a recent study by researchers at Stanford University, University of Chicago, and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, shows that the managers of today are partially correct, as they found that “Fully remote working appears to lower average productivity by around 10% to 20%”. Communication becomes like a game of “telephone”, where messages are often garbled and distorted, sidetracking innovation and creativity. In addition, the impact of isolation on completely remote workers brings on loneliness and despair. One client I spoke to recently mentioned that he hardly ever leaves the house and hasn’t had a conversation with anyone else except his partner in over five years. This person struck me as despondent and depressed for lack of human companionship. And therein lies the argument for hybrid work.

Hybrid work not only boosts employee morale and engagement, but it also provides managers with assurances that employees are not “shirking from home”.  A pre-pandemic study (2014) found that employees on a hybrid work schedule advanced more quickly in their careers, gaining promotions at a faster pace than their Work From Home (WFH) colleagues. Later studies, post-pandemic, proved that employees’ productivity increased by 4% and personal satisfaction with work increased and they reported so in a self-assessment in the same study.

So how do managers reconcile their desire to “see” what people are doing in their organizations with the obvious cost savings associated with an almost completely remote workforce. As technology continues to advance, it may become easier to “drop in” on employees. The purpose of “Managing By Walking Around” was to engender trust and build relationships around the organization. It’s up to the leaders to form strong bonds with employees. Other studies have shown that when a manager is present in person, even once a year, employees’ productivity, loyalty, and work performance soars. Some people may want to continue the “return to office” mandate , but building a better workplace has mainly to do with how connected people feel to the organization. Research has shown that the best way to keep people connected, is to build a bond through openness, collaboration, allow a more dynamic, creative, and adaptable business environment. Maybe that’s one good purpose for Artificial Intelligence (AI).

While remote work can offer flexibility and the ability to work from anywhere, it also introduces new challenges and opportunities for disagreement between managers and employees. Here are some common areas of disagreement and ways to address them.” – Vlad Matei


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.