The debate over where employees should work is increasingly being pitched as a binary of employees vs. employers. It’s the “remote vs. office war,” or the “boss-worker power struggle.” But that’s a very outdated way of thinking. The workplace of the future isn’t going to be the fully in-person office of the pre-pandemic, nor will it be the mostly remote model of the pandemic at its height. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, “None of us are coming out of this pandemic assuming we are going to go back to 2019…We have to find a new way going forward.”
As many companies are making plans to bring employees back to the office for at least a few days a week, the question is: how can we maximize individual flexibility while building company culture and in-person connection? According to a recent survey by Deloitte, nearly 90% of business leaders say finding the right workplace model is essential to their company’s success, but only a quarter say their organizations are currently ready to do that.
Certainly, flexibility is the watchword for employees. According to research by LinkedIn, there’s been an 83% increase in job listings mentioning flexibility, and those listings attract 35% more engagement. And there are benefits for companies, as well. In a survey by Gartner, 43% of employees said flexibility in working hours made them more productive.
Three years after the pandemic began, we also now have a lot of science showing the downsides of virtual work and the unique benefits that come from being around our co-workers.
As humans, we’re hard-wired to connect. It’s how we evolved, finding safety by fitting in with the group and connecting with others. As Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom puts it, “Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others.” And part of being better means working better.
While working together through collaboration software is useful and often necessary, working together in-person has real benefits that simply can’t be achieved virtually. A study by researchers from the University of Michigan found that teams working together in specially-designed “war rooms” doubled their productivity. An MIT study found that researchers working in person with each other were more collaborative and published more papers. Research has also shown that face-to-face communication is 34 times more effective than email.
The Way We Zoom Now
Of course, virtual collaboration is now done more by video than email. But here, too, there are advantages to meeting in person. A 2022 study by Columbia’s Melanie S. Brucks and Stanford’s Jonathan Levav found that “videoconferencing hampers idea generation because it focuses communicators on a screen, which prompts a narrower cognitive focus.” In other words, it’s hard to think outside of the box if we’re…locked inside a box. That’s why, as a McKinsey study concluded, certain activities are best done in person, including “negotiations, critical business decisions, brainstorming sessions, providing sensitive feedback, and onboarding new employees.” And according to researchers from Microsoft, remote work during the pandemic caused employees to become “more siloed,” interacting less with other teams.
It’s also worth remembering that even though the debate is so often framed as employer vs. employees, a new survey by Joblist found that, while 36% of those looking for jobs want fully remote work, 44% want to be fully in-person. Gen Zs were the least likely to want to work at home, with only 27% preferring a remote job. That’s not surprising, given that working in person makes onboarding, training, learning and development, networking and mentorship easier. And providing those opportunities is one way to retain younger workers, who, as LinkedIn chief economist Karin Kimbrough points out, are more likely than their older co-workers to job hop. "The employers need to think about how they create ... mentorship and connection that will really keep Gen Zs in place," Kimbrough says. "Because they are likely to move around."
What’s most important is to note that much of this conversation is taking place among a relatively small section of the workforce. According to a McKinsey analysis, 112 million workers — representing 70% of the workforce — are frontline workers. They don’t have the luxury of debating where they want to work. And as bad as burnout is among all workers, it’s even worse for frontline workers. A recent survey by YouGov and SafetyCulture showed, over half of frontline workers (54%) said they were ready to quit their field if another opportunity came up.
In May of 2022, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory highlighting the still urgent crisis of burnout among healthcare workers. The report predicted a national shortage of over 3 million health workers in the next five years. “If we fail to act,” said Dr. Murthy, “we will place our nation’s health at risk.” Among the topline recommendations was a call to “transform workplace culture to empower health workers and be responsive to their voices and needs.” Of course, that’s what we also need to do for all workers.
While those of us lucky enough to even have the option to work at home value the flexibility, we’re now deep enough into this global experiment to be able to see that it doesn’t come without costs. For instance, anyone who’s spent time in wall-to-wall virtual meetings is familiar with virtual fatigue. Research by Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab found that it begins to set in around 30 minutes into a meeting. And as Adam Grant wrote, “even before Covid, many people reported spending the majority of their work time in meetings and on emails. Once everyone was reachable around the clock, collaboration overload only got worse.”
And the problem goes beyond just fatigue. Even the most sophisticated and cutting-edge video communication technology is no substitute for the low-tech and much older legacy communication system of face-to-face interaction. We take it for granted, but our ability to read each other’s facial expressions and body language matters. When virtual meeting software lags, or freezes, it’s not just an inconvenience — it takes a physiological toll. “We’ve evolved to get meaning out of a flick of the eye,” says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “Our species has survived because we can produce those signals in a way that’s meaningful.”
Our brains are also deeply attuned to the rhythms of human conversation, and we’ve evolved to interpret small silences in certain ways. In video communication, those rhythms are different. A study by the Technical University of Berlin found that small delays can make us judge the other person as being less attentive.
A Sometimes Lonely (Working) World
But perhaps the biggest factor at play here is our hard-wired need to connect meaningfully with friends. Friends are essential to a thriving life — and to a thriving workplace. As Yale professors Emma Seppälä and Marissa King wrote, employees with friends at work have higher productivity and job satisfaction than those who don’t. When we have no personal connections with our co-workers, “it’s just a job, it’s just a list of tasks, there’s no loyalty to the company,” says Cornell professor Chris Collins. And a study by Gallup — on the connection between our mood and how we connect socially — found that what boosts our mood the most is in-person interaction.
While the loneliness epidemic certainly predates the pandemic, it’s not hard to see how the isolation of remote work has exacerbated it. A global survey by Entrepreneur found that an astounding 94% of senior leaders say that working remotely is making their teams more lonely. And plenty of employees seem to be feeling the same thing. In a survey by the American Psychiatric Association, almost two-thirds of those working from home say they feel lonely at least sometimes and 17% are lonely all the time. And as one study showed, loneliness isn’t just bad for our health, it also impairs our performance.
Dr. Murthy has written extensively about loneliness, which he calls a public health epidemic. Given that we spend an average of around 90,000 hours of our lives at work, the workplace is an essential driver of social connection. As he puts it, “solving loneliness requires the help of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time.” That’s why creating “connection and community” was one of the five pillars of the Surgeon General’s “Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace:” “We know that if we are to prioritize our health and the health of our companies, the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections.”
“Humans need to move”
In a New York Times piece entitled “Working From Home Is Less Healthy Than You Think,” Dr. Jordan Metzl from the Hospital for Special Surgery wrote that while the convenience and sometimes increased productivity of remote work is important, ‘those who have the luxury of working from home might end up realizing that remote work is disadvantageous to their mental and physical well-being.” Citing a recent compilation of studies, Dr. Metzl notes that though some people thrive in remote work, others become less active, isolated and depressed.
Creating Cultures of Connection
So how do we build the new workplace? What should it look like? How can we combine the advantages of flexibility with the unique benefits of being in the office? A recent survey by Monster found that 49% of workers expect flexibility in where they work and 45% in when they work. On the employer side, 53% of managers said flexible work helps talent retention. And yet, as a study by Mercer found, only a third of companies have explicit policies in place to manage flexible work.
Flexibility doesn’t mean anything goes. Indeed, building individual flexibility into work structure can actually make it stronger and more durable. Much like new earthquake-resistant techniques do — by allowing the building to flex, it can withstand greater challenges and remain standing.
For HR analyst and author Josh Bersin, that means experimenting. “We no longer ‘go to work’ or ‘come in to work’ — we essentially ‘do work’ wherever we are,” he writes. “This means there will be a lot of new ideas yet to come, so keep your mind open.”
Adam Grant uses the metaphor of individual sports, relay sports and team sports. “If your workplace is full of people playing an individual sport like gymnastics, you can be remote-first,” he says. That would include jobs like call center reps and accountants. For workplaces, like a carpentry shop, or a media company, think relay race. “The person passing the baton needs to be in sync with the person receiving it,” Grant says. And for workplaces like an R&D lab or consulting company, think team sport: “When excellence depends on repeatedly passing the ball back and forth, you really want to spend several days a week together.”
Appearing on Grant’s podcast, Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley summed it up: “The office should no longer be a destination — it should be a tool.” As Grant put it, “with that vision in mind, we can set out to use each tool for what it’s best for — like the office for building community and culture, and the digital space for reflection and deep work.”
In Bloomberg News, Matthew Boyle reports on why companies are coming up with rebranding their workplace plans — new language can help open up new ways of thinking. As he notes, “return-to-office” is actually rarely used now, because of its association with mandates.
For KPMG, it’s “Flex with Purpose.” “In the past we just got on planes and flew around the world,” said Sandy Torchia, KPMG’s vice chair of talent and culture. “Now we take a step back and say, what is the intention of this interaction?” 3M is going with “Work Your Way,” and American Express with “Amex Flex.” Accenture, one of Thrive’s long-time partners, is using “Omni-connected.”
Another benefit of new names is that it signals a break with the past, making it clear that we’re not “going back” to anything, but instead going forward. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella has spoken of the need to “refound” the entire company for a changed world.
This is echoed by Harvard Business School’s Tsedal Neeley, who says that companies should “explicitly do a relaunch — meaning, together, communicate and talk about the desired norms and goals that people have, the resources that are available to people.”
And not just norms and resources on the employer’s side, but needs on the employee’s side. At Thrive, a core part of our onboarding process is the Entry Interview, in which we ask new hires what’s important to them in their lives outside of work — not just responsibilities they have, like childcare, but what allows them to reset, course-correct and tap into their creativity and focus. Then we revisit this discussion in an ongoing way.
With some of our partners, we’ve created the Reentry Interview. Here, returning employees are asked about any flexibility needs that they have, and also about ways of working they have found that allow them to tap into their focus and replenish their capacity for deep work. That’s a way to build in the benefits of flexibility into the structure of the new system from day one. The contours of that flexibility, and how it evolves, are a joint and ongoing endeavor between manager and employee, who’s not being asked to surrender that valuable sense of autonomy and agency, while acknowledging the needs of the business.
Employees Will Come Back for Each Other
We have an incredible opportunity to reimagine work — and the workplace — around what makes us thrive. And the core of that should be human connection. In-person workplaces should take advantage of the unique benefits of an in-person workplace: humans being around other humans.
And that’s exactly what employees want. According to Microsoft Work Trend Index research, 85% of employees would be motivated to go back to the office to rebuild team connection, 84% to socialize with coworkers, 74% if they knew their work friends would also be there, and 73% if their team members would be there. “It’s simple,” writes Microsoft chief marketing officer Chris Capossela: “people care about people.” What that means, as Accenture CEO Julie Sweet put it, is that companies need to “earn the commute.”
There’s no reason to bring remote workers into the office if they’re just going to recreate what they were doing while working at home: spending the day in meetings or staring at screens. This could mean redesigning physical workplaces to have fewer cubicles and more common areas devoted to brainstorming, collaborating, networking, learning or simply socializing. “Make connection the top priority for in-person time,” writes Capossela. “Intentionally create both the space and the permission for employees to spend that time reconnecting.”
As companies begin to bring employees back, they need to be just as intentional about creating that sense of connection in the office. That, says Kay Sargent, director of workplace design for architecture firm HOK, is going to be the most important office perk of the post-pandemic. "When you think about what you want in the office, you have to consider what you can't get from home," Sargent said. "I can design the most amazing amenities on the planet, but if they're empty, it won't draw employees in. If companies think they can just throw out a box of doughnuts on Wednesdays to get employees back to the office, they're mistaken." That, Sargent says, means creating vibrant spaces that feel alive and emphasize connection.
In the MIT Sloan Management Review, University of Michigan business professors Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Maxim Sytch call for organizations to build workplacebuilt on “immensely human interactions.” “Reimagining the post-pandemic workplace offers opportunities to restore people’s sense of belonging and create an environment for deep and meaningful human connection,” they write. “By doing so, leaders will be working toward more vibrant and resilient organizations.”
The good news is that the resource that will be most valuable in drawing employees back is available to all companies — the employees themselves. They’ll come back for each other in workplaces that are designed to fulfill our need for human connection. The battle about in-person vs. remote doesn’t need to be a battle. Connection, engagement and purpose are great for employees and employers alike. To borrow from Kevin Costner, if we build it, they will come.