When the pandemic hit nearly three years ago, there was no dispute. Working from home (WFH) became a necessity. Covid hasn’t gone away, but with vaccines and other measures in place, gathering in offices is (usually) less risky.
That doesn’t mean employees are eager to start commuting again. Most insist that working remotely makes them more productive, brings better work-life balance, and leaves them more inclined to stick with an employer who allows it.
But not every employer agrees. Just this week, Disney CEO Bob Iger joined a growing chorus of business leaders summoning employees back to the office. Forgoing the carrot for the stick, Igor insisted that the power of collaboration and creativity dims outside of an in-person setting.
The office requirement risks fallout. This recent piece from Fortune magazine described it as “the Four Horsemen of forced return to the office”: resistance, attrition, “quiet quitting,” and loss of workforce diversity.
So what’s a business leader to do? Offer the carrot of remote work? Or wield the stick of an in-person mandate?
I’ll confess I’m not a fan of the stick as a leadership tool. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary. But in my experience, the more a leader turns to it, the less effective they prove to be.
This debate is a classic case of the need to think and act differently. As is often true with issues like this, it’s more complicated than it seems. That means the solution isn’t going to be simple. We need to move past the either-or argument by starting from a place of trust and collaboration. Communicators can play an important role.
Are you a champion of working from home? Show the measurable benefits, starting with the business impact. Track productivity improvements, how WFH affects recruitment and retention, where the company saves money, and how creativity, professional growth and employee morale are enhanced through tech tools.
Are you convinced that in-person engagement is essential? Demonstrate how that’s true. Intentionally create ways for people to interact while in the office. Report on how that engagement makes a measurable difference. And be present yourself; requiring people to show up while you don’t, even for good reasons, won’t help your case.
Finally, wherever you stand on this argument, be open to compromise. Many businesses have turned to hybrid options – some days in person, some remote. Success isn’t guaranteed, as it depends on the business, each worker’s role and desires, and available technology. Even so, this approach can work if leaders and employees are open to doing what it takes reasonably and equitably.
Communicators can help both sides come together by helping them explore their own reasoning, understand others’ perspectives, and collaborate on what’s best for everyone. In doing so, we show the vital business role we can play as conveners and relationship builders.