Trust and Return to Office | Part I Reframing the Debate

Businessman return to work concept. Reopen economy after Coronavirus lockdown. Woman runs to work in office after removal of restrictions on Covid 19

As we navigate the uncertain waters of returning to the office in a post-pandemic world, one crucial element stands out as the cornerstone of a successful transition: trust. Trust is not only the foundation of healthy workplace relationships but also the linchpin that holds together the entire ecosystem of the modern office. In this blog series, we explore the pivotal role of trust in facilitating a smooth return to the office.

The return to office marks a pivotal moment for both employers and employees. After a prolonged period of remote work during the pandemic, employers have begun asking – or demanding – that employees return to the office. Employers have valid reasons for wanting workers back in the office and, while many employees are eager to return to the sense of normalcy they had pre-pandemic, others prefer the autonomy and flexibility to which they have become accustomed while working from home. As a result, the return-to-office conversation has become polarized, highlighting concerns about productivity and the balance between in-person and remote work arrangements.

In the first of this three-part blog series, I attempt reframe the current return to office debate, looking at employee perspectives on remote and in-office work, the employer motivation behind calling employees back to the office, and the societal impacts of returning to the workplace. The next two blogs in the series will address what employers and employees, respectively, can do to smooth the transition.

The Employee Perspective

The reluctance of some employees to return to the office can be attributed to various factors, ranging from control over work hours and location to a desire for greater autonomy. Here are some common reasons why employees may not want to return to the office:

  1. Productivity: Working from home helps workers efficiently drive personal performance and stay focused on completing individual tasks.
  2. Commute and work-life balance: Commuting to the office can be time-consuming and stressful. Remote work has allowed employees to reclaim some of the time they previously spent commuting, and they may be reluctant to give that up.
  3. Flexibility: Many employees have come to appreciate the flexibility that remote work provides. They have had the opportunity to tailor their work environment to their preferences, which can be challenging to replicate in an office setting.
  4. Childcare and family responsibilities: Remote work offers flexibility in managing childcare and family responsibilities, and a return to the office can pose significant economic and logistical challenges for family care.
  5. Psychological well-being: Remote work has provided many employees with a sense of control and reduced workplace stress. A return to the office may reintroduce stressors associated with the physical office environment, such as a noisy or distracting workspace.

At the same time, many workers look forward to the return to office to regain a sense of normalcy. A recent Gallup poll, identifies ongoing challenges related to remote work:

  1. Networking, relationship building, and professional development: In-person work settings facilitate organic networking and relationship building and present opportunities for professional growth and mentorship. Being in proximity to colleagues and superiors fosters learning and contributes to career advancement.
  2. Feeling less connected to the organization’s culture: Employees may miss the sense of belonging and connection to the company’s culture that the office environment fosters. The office often embodies the company’s values and mission, making it an important place for cultural immersion.
  3. Access to resources: while many workers have invested heavily in home offices, the workplace can provide resources that employees may not have at home, such as specialized tools, software, and a more reliable and faster internet connection.
  4. Disrupted work processes: For many, going to the office can provide a structured and professional work environment, which improves time management and can lead to increased motivation and a sense of purpose.

The Employer Perspective

While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote and flexible work arrangements, there are still several compelling reasons why employers are keen to have their employees back in the physical workplace:

  1. Customer service: The American Customer Satisfaction Index dropped 4 points between 2019 and 2022, falling to its lowest level in almost 20 years. While it is rebounding, lower customer satisfaction is related to how quickly and easily customers can reach providers for problem resolution, and the quality of customer service varies with remote work.
  2. Collaboration and innovation: Physical proximity can enhance spontaneous interactions and facilitate more effective collaboration among employees. Being in the same location allows for in-person meetings, brainstorming sessions, and face-to-face communication, which can lead to increased creativity and innovation.
  3. Supervision and management: In-office work allows for more direct supervision and management of employees. Employers can observe and provide guidance to ensure that work is being carried out efficiently and in accordance with company standards.
  4. Organizational culture and values: The physical office environment can help reinforce company culture and values. It provides a space for employees to immerse themselves in the company’s ethos and connect with its mission and values.
  5. Networking and relationship building: In-person interactions can facilitate networking and relationship-building opportunities, both within the organization and with external partners or clients. These connections can lead to new business opportunities and partnerships.
  6. Branding and image: A well-designed office space can enhance a company’s brand and image. It can leave a positive impression on clients, partners, and potential employees.

The Societal Perspective

The return to the office also has several societal benefits that extend beyond the individual organization. These advantages can positively impact communities, economies, and society as a whole. Here are some potential societal benefits of employees returning to the office:

  1. Economic stimulus and urban revitalization: When employees return to the office, they may contribute to increased economic activity in the surrounding communities. Office workers patronizing local businesses and public transportation services boost both private and public revenue. Commercial real estate benefits from the return to the office, as organizations invest in office space, renovations, and expansions.
  2. Volunteering and community engagement: The return to the office can encourage employees to participate in local volunteer and community engagement activities, furthering social responsibility and giving back to society.
  3. Public safety: Greater office presence in urban areas can enhance public safety, as more people are present to observe and report any safety concerns. This can contribute to the well-being of the community.

It’s important to note that the societal benefits of returning to the office may depend on the size and density of urban areas, the local economy, and various other factors.

Finding Common Ground

The pros and cons for returning to the office may at first may at first blush appear to be divisive. Looking more closely, however, there is a lot of common ground between what employers and employees want. Topping the list are increased productivity and collaboration, which fuel innovation and customer satisfaction. Employee engagement and connection to corporate culture are high on both audiences’ lists. Availability and utilization of corporate resources also shows up in both perspectives.

With so much common ground, how is it that the debate continues to be so polarized?

Reframing the Debate

The challenge with the return to office debate today isn’t a lack of common ground. Instead, it’s a lack of common understanding. Each side appears to be fully vested in their own perspective, to the extent that they appear to have missed how much they have in common with the other side. The debate has devolved from a conversation on how to achieve common goals to a series of demands for each side to get it’s own way, with employers threatening to fire workers who refuse to return to the office, and employees threatening to quit if they are forced to return.

Rather than debating which side is right, we should be asking what’s important in each perspective, and how can we leverage the common ground to find solutions that work for both employers and employees. Both sides need to exercise empathy, reflecting on what’s driving their desire to return to the office (or not) and understanding what’s important to the other side, and why.

As we embark on the journey back to the office, trust emerges as the linchpin that can make or break this transition. A culture built on trust fosters collaboration, innovation, and overall well-being. By prioritizing trust, organizations can not only successfully navigate the return to the office but also thrive in the ever-evolving landscape of work. Trust is not just a means to an end but an essential part of the destination itself—a more resilient, adaptable, and connected workplace.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at how employers can boost trust to smooth the transition during return to office.

I used AI to support researching and writing this blog series.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

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