What We’re Missing in the Work From Home Debate

 We are in the equivalent of a massive game of employer-employee chicken.

“Everyone must come back to the office by this date.”

“I will quit if they make me come back.”

Who will blink first?

survey of over 200 New York-based C-Suite executives found that an immense 76% think in-person work is essential to the bottom line. But executives are seeing resistance to getting people back in the office. So, is there a compromise? A hybrid solution? Possibly, but one key won’t fit every lock.

Employers who want full-time in-office workers need to consider recruiting, productivity, and culture. Employees who want to stay home need to know that remote work may hinder their opportunities, creativity, and boundaries.

Employer Trade-Offs

Economists have dubbed current times as The Great Resignation—a phenomenon describing the record number of people leaving their jobs after COVID-19. I previously detailed how work has been demoted as people reevaluate where a career fits into the broader scope of their lives.

But companies embracing fully-remote options are seeing (at least short-term) growth. Job listings mentioning full or part-time remote work saw seven times more applications than in-person roles. In the days after Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky, abolished the idea of location-based pay, the company’s recruitment page received a million visitors.

Losing a salaried employee can cost a business 6 to 9 months’ salary in recruiting and training expenses, and working from home can be considered a salary perk or bonus to help retain employees. The home office saves employees money on commuting, parking, business attire, and meals away from home — the average savings could be equivalent to a $6,000 raise. That couldn’t hurt in retaining some employees if companies can communicate this perk in a way that doesn’t sound insulting.

Employers: Consider productivity measures

When Elon Musk ordered Tesla employees back to the office full-time, he was asked what he would say to an employee who thinks in-person work is an “antiquated concept.” Musk replied, “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”

But is it largely pretending, or can certain tasks, and certain workers, ace productivity at home? Gensler’s US Work from Home Survey 2020 found experiences varied across generations, with Baby Boomers being more likely to feel accomplished at the end of the day, as well as know what is expected of them while working from home.

Being visible isn’t a measure of them being productive. Considering the office hasn’t been a great source of productivity historically, performance measures should be rethought, and individuals should be able to make a choice about which tasks will benefit everyone most by their heads-down focus time at home.

Employers: Consider culture

Many leaders I counsel think bringing everyone back to the office is the only way to restore and maintain their culture. While office events and Friday happy hour are absolutely beneficial to building camaraderie, I reveal the key nuance: you can’t build culture while ignoring what your employees care about. If they truly value remote work, forcing them back to the office won’t make a happy employee willing to engage in office culture anyway. Kindergartners don’t like being told what to do and how to do it; why would grown adults happily accept that they need constant oversight to be efficient?

What if you updated the office space to make it a perk, flipping your draconian policy into a voluntary brand differentiator? Two-by-four fluorescent light fixtures have never made for an inspiring office ambiance. Employee engagement positively correlates with workplace satisfactionSo updating your office design and amenities might invigorate your employees to want to return to the office, and then willingly build your culture themselves.

The most common hybrid arrangement I hear of is asking employees to show up in the office three days a week, but this is the most arbitrary and potentially ill-advised compromise. One week a quarter of intense and intentional connection would do more for culture than half of every week together.

Employee Trade-Offs

Among other benefits, it was nice not having a commute, and taking calls in pajama pants, right? But employees need to realize their opportunities, creativity, and boundaries may be hindered with remote work.

Employees: Consider your opportunities may shrink

One question I continually hear innovative companies ask is, “How do we ensure people working remotely have the same opportunities?” Inherent in this question is the implication that in-person workers are given more prospects. Higher-ups tend to be traditionalists, who may (even subconsciously) think: “You’re here, I need you, and it’s easier than sending an email to a remote worker.”

But former Docusign CEO, Dan Springer, refused to hold people back in order to balance the scales for remote workers. He realized the simple fact that collaborating with colleagues face-to-face leads to growth. This is charmingly ironic, given that his company is founded on the fact that you don’t need to sign things in person anymore.

Being remote might make you more individually productive, but your long-term success is dependent on your network. Evidence shows that during the pandemic our network shrank—we connected with our team, but we weren’t connecting across departments and organizations. Consider that while working from home, you may miss inserting your voice in the conversation, you may be perceived as less valuable, and as a result, you may miss promotion opportunities.

Employees: Consider creativity

Studies say that creativity is hindered when your physical viewpoint is narrowed. Sitting, and staring at a small screen at home has crippled creative ideation. Walking, getting outdoors, and collaborating widen your viewpoint and facilitate creative problem-solving.

“Creative ideation is that frenetic spark that happens when a group of people is together, face-to-face, beers in hand, pacing back and forth against a messy whiteboard,” said Elie Goral, executive creative director at the creative agency Color.

This isn’t just imperative for ad agencies though. Creative problem solving, fresh perspective, and innovative solutions boost your value in any industry.

Employees: Consider boundaries

There used to be two distinct spheres of life: work and home. The separation of the distance between the office and driveway allowed us to close one chapter and one sphere of life, and during our commute, mentally transition into a different sphere to prepare for life at home.

Space cues us on what we are to do. Sleep experts say you should not watch TV or scroll on your phone in bed. The bed should cue you emotionally, mentally, and physically that it is time to sleep. The office should cue us to work; the home should cue us to our familiar relationships and responsibilities. By having both our work and home spheres physically in the same place, both constantly, and subconsciously pulling at us, our brain experiences stress-related symptoms. There is always a cost.

By working from home, you may be making it harder to work, AND harder to be at home.


In 2020, our world came to a screeching halt. Non-essential offices closed, and we struggled to balance our kids’ algebra while navigating that important Zoom meeting. Hopefully, we made the space to process this upheaval of the ordinary (if not, I wrote a great journal for that).

But over time, the pandemic changed remote work from a necessity to a standard some are unwilling to surrender. Research is varied on the benefits AND obstacles of working from home. It is a complex issue without a single solution.

Lincoln, an expert in river navigation, explained how Union ships made their way down the Mississippi during the Civil War. There was too much fog to see very far, so they used point-to-point navigation—they sailed only to the spot they could see, and then stopped. From there, they recalibrated their bearings, later sailing to the next spot they could see. They never navigated the whole river in the fog, just to the next spot, then waited for more visibility. As a result, they never hit the shore or ran aground.

Maybe companies don’t have to write their back-to-office policy in stone yet. Perhaps there can be understanding, listening, nuance, and flexibility in each company to gingerly navigate their way forward, and humbly correct course when needed.

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