Wondering how to get workers back in the office? You’re asking the wrong question.

The right question isn’t about where people work – it’s about how well they do the work they do alone as well as the work they do together. It should center on whether they’re achieving their goals, whether they’re motivated and supported in this uncertain environment, and whether they’re at cause for the mission. It’s not a question of return-to-office vs. work-from-home anymore. The genie is out of the bottle. Workers know it and smart leaders will rush to embrace it. 

I’ve said nothing about location in any of this because location is no longer a gating issue for modern work. Pushback on this point is reflective of a command-and-control management style that began dying, quickly, the moment newly remote workers discovered that Microsoft Teams worked on their laptops.

Insights from the Magnet: Post-Covid Future of Work study

When we first ran the Magnet: Post-Covid Future of Work study in 2022, we saw something interesting on this question of work location preference: when we asked respondents about their current versus “desired” workstyles, respondents universally wanted one more day working from home. Workers who worked 3 days in the office wished they were working only 2. Those working 4 days in the office wished they were working 3.

Why the reluctance to work from the office?

Workers who had complete autonomy and could pick how many days they worked in the traditional office? They reported working zero days in the office, preferring to work 5 days from their home offices.

Let’s look at a different insight from the Magnet study. When we looked at multiple workstyle scenarios – from mandated 5 days in the office to mandated hybrid work schedules determined by the employer to workstyles largely up to the worker to full autonomy – happiness largely correlated with control. Workers who could pick their workstyles were happier than those who could not. There was no outright rebellion, which is important to note – but there was a clear preference for working from home, whenever possible.

It’s also important to note that during this jarring transition from pre-Covid to now, our perceptions of where we identify the most strongly have irrevocably changed. We now identify more with our home offices than we do with our “traditional office” offices. I wrote about this phenomenon over at Inc.com and will link to it here – and I’ll have a few more thoughts on this shortly, as well.

In understanding why we prefer to work from home, we need to look at a few key trends. First is the universal acceptance and near total penetration of unified communications – Microsoft Teams, Zoom, plus a few others – and the subsequent mainstreaming of video collaboration. The technology is on every phone and laptop now and it’s mainstreamed. It’s no longer new. It’s how we do things.

Understanding the Cultural Underpinnings of Control

On a deeper level, though, we need to look back to our Culture & Technology Intersection study, which was the foundation of my second book, Unfiltered Marketing: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in a Digitally Distracted World (buy your copy anywhere you buy your books – but if you want to work with a fantastic independent bookseller, buy yours from Porchlight Books – the guys who used to be 800 CEO READ – link is here). The critical macro trend we identified was, “Seeking Control in an Out-of-Control World.” Yes, we’re living in an age of collapsed trust, but importantly we’re striving to wrest some semblance of control back over our lives, digital and otherwise. And part of this manifests itself in our desire to control where we do our work.

Is this because we need an extra layer between us and “management”? Possibly, particularly given the recent comments shared here and elsewhere from leaders of major corporations saying that WFH employees lack passion, creativity, and all the other good things that they assume RTO employees have in spades. I’d distrust a boss who says that, too.

What does it all mean?

Looking at these data points and insights should send us in a few different directions.

First, acknowledge that the technological genie is fully out of the bottle – unified communications works just as well as a phone call, and probably better.

Second, understand that knowledge workers want control over their outcomes – and that workstyles may be different depending on personality (not to mention role in the company), but that they universally have voted for more time working from home and less from the office. And why not? Meeting equity is quickly reaching the singularity where our physical locations no longer determine our engagement.

Last, if this idea of RTO as the only way to ensure “passion and magic” is the only way we can see ourselves going forwards, the lens needs to point inwards. Culture is always the last thing to change. We need to adapt to a world bound by communication and collaboration technology – and the cultural means to get the most out of workers acknowledging this new tool at our disposal. That’s the win-win we’re looking for.

What’s Next?

As we look forward to fielding the next wave of the Magnet: Post-Covid Future of Work study, we’re digging deeper into the cultural impacts of this post-pandemic workstyle, the emergence of unifying technology and the implications it all has on physical workspace design.

If you’re interested in learning more, drop me a note.

I’ve got a few more angles on this topic that I’ll lay out over the coming days, because I think it’s critical to think through. We tend to think that we’re “over” the pandemic, that “hybrid” isn’t a word we use anymore because it’s mainstream, and that everyone has moved boldly into this new future. I speak to a lot of senior IT leaders. I can tell you with full confidence that the world hasn’t moved on, that these issues are still front and center in the minds of our customers, and that everyone – still – is searching for “the right way to do this.”

It’s a big, complex, fascinating subject. That’s why we study it. Tell me what you think over on Twitter (@Note_to_CMO) or on LinkedIn.