Mar 17, 2021 - Economy

The case for going back to the office

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Office workers around the world are being told they can work from home forever. But that doesn't mean they should.

Why it matters: Even though work is possible from anywhere, most companies are sticky, and they will hold onto their in-person cultures. That means those who stay home might be out of sight and out of mind when it comes to promotions and other opportunities.

The big picture: This isn't an issue if everyone is in the office or everyone is remote. The complications start to arise when the staff splits into two groups: those who come in vs. those who stay home."There is a huge promotion cost of working from home if others are in the office, but you are not in the office," Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom tells Axios.

We've already seen this happen. In a 2015 study of a workplace in China, Bloom found that teleworkers were 13% more productive, but half as likely to get promoted as their in-person colleagues.

  • "Leadership is in the office generally. So if you're going in, you have access to leadership. You see them in the halls, and you're visible to them," says Jessica Reeder, who is an expert on remote work and works on strategy at GitLab, the world's largest all-remote company. "That applies to promotions."

The stakes: There are a number of groups at risk of getting left behind if they choose to telework in a hybrid setting.

  • Working parents — especially moms — who telework to be with their children could feel isolated.
  • Salespeople who work from home while their colleagues travel around the world for in-person pitches could lose deals.
  • Neurodivergent employees, who might choose to work remotely because they don't adapt as well to office environments, could be left out.
  • New hires, especially younger ones, could miss out on connections with friends or mentors at work. "Firms I have spoken to consider maybe having an extra day in the office post-pandemic for new hires," Bloom says. For example, a company might tell veteran employees they need to come in three days a week, but have new hires come in for four days for extra in-person bonding and training.

What to watch: "It's very, very hard to reconcile these two ways of working, but I don’t want to say that it's impossible," says Reeder. Now that companies are more aware of the perks of remote work, they can be intentional about making a hybrid model work for their employees, she says.

  • Here's a simple trick from Reeder that could make a big difference: When conducting meetings that include in-person and remote employees, tell everyone to dial in from their desks instead of gathering the in-person folks in one room and having remote workers call. That way everyone occupies the same little square and feels equally part of the discussion.
  • Another strategy is to add some structure to the hybrid model, Bloom says. Have everyone come into the office on the same days and have everyone stay home on the same days, too. That fixes the "out of sight, out of mind" problem.
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