Were you asked if you wanted to go back to the office?
7 min read
According to What Is The Future Of The Office? (Business Because, 2021), ‘… 67% of employees expect to adopt a hybrid approach, balancing time at home and in the office.’
But even this figure from 2021 has been outstripped by more recent research from Condeco which found that 85% of employees favor a hybrid model.
One question being asked is, how many days a week should people be in the office? Apple, for example, decided on three office days and two remote per week for most employees.
But we think this is the wrong question. First, we need to ask why.
Why go back to the office?
Remote working was never explored on the mass scale that was experienced during the pandemic. Before COVID, most office workers who lived within commuting distance of work spent most of their time in the office.
But research, (including our own which we’ll draw on shortly), shows that remote working suits some people better, and adds certain benefits such as greater personal agency on work-life balance.
The old way, fueled by presenteeism and filled with open-plan distractions, is detrimental to many people’s performance and well-being.
“At the start of the pandemic, the question for traditionally in-office organizations was, can we do the work successfully through a hybrid or remote workforce?” says Dr Rachel Cubas-Wilkinson, Head of US Consultancy at The Myers-Briggs Company.
“We proved that we could. Now, the question being asked is different. Employees are now asking, ‘Do we want to go back?’ There was finally an acceleration of remote working overnight, which would have probably taken years to achieve for more traditionally in-office organizations. And we found out that it worked on many levels, including productivity. As a bonus, employees found it easier to balance work and life. Why would we just go back to the old way without better optimizing different scenarios to different people?”
It’s more complex than we (dare to) think
At the heart of Dr Cubas-Wilkinson’s comment is the individual. People have different personalities and preferences. But now, when home life is more intertwined with work life than before, these differences are more visible. They carry more meaning in a work context
Home environment, personal situations, responsibilities, time of life, personality type, type of role, and more are all factors in where and how we work best. The great remote experiment, forced by the pandemic, has made us realize this. It’s different for everyone. It’s complex.
And the pandemic isn’t even over yet.
With so many re-evaluating their work situation and looking for new jobs, it’s time we invest in getting to know the individual.
Understanding people’s needs
In Redesigning Work: What Next for the Office?, Kevin Ellis, Chairman at PwC UK, talks about Redesigning Work, a book by Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School. Gratton outlines a four-step design process for the return to the workplace:
- Modelling and testing
- Acting and creating
“In my view,” writes Ellis, “the most crucial is the first—understanding what matters—grasping a sense of the skills, networks and jobs that are critical for productivity, how knowledge flows, what employees want from work, and how people experience work at different points in their life.”
Dr Cubas-Wilkinson makes a similar point. She raises the idea of using employee ‘personas’ to help shape a back-to-the-office strategy.
“Organizations need to be finding out more about their employees and their work,” she says. “How much focus time, synchronous coordination time and asynchronous collaboration do you need to do your best work? And what are your personal circumstances behind that? For example, someone who’s single and lives nearby to the office might prefer to be in the office a bit more frequently, but still not every day. In contrast, someone who’s been with their organization a long time and knows who to reach out to probably doesn’t need to be there that much in order to do their best work.
“But someone who’s new and lacks institutional knowledge and internal connections to other people might benefit from some ramp-up time in the office (assuming other employees are physically there). So might those who don’t have a good workspace at home, like young professionals sharing a house or a flat, or people with families who are at home throughout the day.”
“I think that personas, used in this way, are an interesting concept and I don’t think this idea has been delved into enough, but doing so could report employee engagement and retention, as well as inform new models for flexible work arrangements.”
One way to start thinking along these lines is to conduct and use research which gives us insights into different perspectives.
Our latest research, conducted by John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, explores people’s responses to, and feelings about, remote and in-office work.
Here’s a top-level overview of what we found.
How do people want to work in the hybrid world?
At the time of the survey (Spring 2022), we found that:
- 34% worked entirely remotely.
- 58% did a hybrid work arrangement (office and remote).
- 8% worked non-remotely, i.e., in the office or workplace.
However, given the choice, only 19% would work remotely all the time. 78% would do a hybrid working arrangement. And only 3% would be non-remote.
The ideal amount of remote working—the ‘sweet spot’—for many respondents is in the 41% to 90% remote working range. Over half (53%) of respondents had a preference in this range. However, less than a quarter (22%) of respondents had this working pattern. Overall:
- 42% worked remotely more than their ideal preference.
- 31% worked remotely less than their ideal preference.
- Only 27% were working remotely at a level that matched their ideal preference.
- 84% of those who never worked remotely would prefer to do so at least some of the time.
- 61% of those who always worked remotely would prefer not to do so all the time.
What’s the best thing about remote working?
From the research, the best thing about remote working is that people enjoyed it. Most respondents were very positive about remote working:
- 84% agreed or strongly agreed that they enjoyed working from home.
- 81% agreed or strongly agreed that they appreciated the peace and quiet of working from home.
What’s the worst thing about remote working?
The most common downside was isolation—having little or no contact, especially face to face contact, with co-workers.
51% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they missed having people around them.
How does personality fit into this?
Respondents were asked for their MBTI personality type so we could see how different types responded to remote working. Some of the most relevant findings for shaping a back-to-the-office strategy are below:
- 55% of people with a preference for Extraversion mentioned lack of contact as the worst thing about remote working…
…but only 40% of Introverts did.
- 13% of people with a Thinking preference mentioned distractions as the worst thing about remote working…
…compared with 6% of those with a Feeling preference.
- 77% of Extraverts said being able to talk, socialize, and be around co-workers or others was the best thing about being in the office…
…but only 45% of Introverts said it.
- 14% of Introverts mentioned keeping work and home separate was the best thing about working in the office...
…but only 5% of Extraverts said it.
What we begin to see here is what different personality types like, dislike, want, and need from their work environment. It’s the start of a three-dimensional picture.
Research like this also starts to tell us what the office should offer people. For example, if it’s the place where people can socialize and see others—as this data suggests—then this can be factored into a back-to-the-office strategy. And because it shows that some people don’t need or want frequent opportunities for socializing, it explains why those people would typically visit the office less. It increases transparency.
Ask questions, be flexible
Any time we really listen to people, things get more complex.
This might discourage employers from asking questions and listening. But we believe findings like the ones we’re sharing in this post, and the many more that are in the research, are valuable and worth finding. They can help organizations and people make better quality choices—as long as they’re taken seriously and acted upon.
And for this to happen, we need flexibility rather than rigidity. A strict back-to-the-office rule discards all the learning that’s come from two years of remote working. More than that, it ignores the voice of employees.
“It’s important to recognize two things,” notes John Hackston. “First, everyone is different. They’re not like each other, they’re not like you. And second, get a clear understanding of why people need to go back to the office. What's the business need, is there a logical reason for them to return? And what are their needs? What do they get from coming back?
“We need to rethink the purpose of the office and make it work in the right way for different people. The office, as it is—or was, with everyone going in all the time—just doesn’t offer a rewarding experience for everyone. The research shows this. But it’s going to take some effort to get it right. If you get it wrong, and especially if you force everyone to go back every day, then our research results show that many will be looking for a new job."
No-one has the answer.
In fact, there is no single answer.
Each organization will need to find the solution that works for them. But a deeper understanding of people, roles, and organizational need, as well as the flexibility to treat hybrid working like an experiment, is most likely the way to get started and get everyone on board.
PS: At the start of this post, we mentioned Apple as an example of a stricter back-to-the-office policy. It didn’t go down too well—for many of the reasons we’re talking about here.