This article was first published in Fast Company.
In the return-to-office annals, many companies are taking the middle ground: Apple wants employees back in the offices three days a week, once COVID-19 rates stabilize. Citigroup, Google, and American Express are on the same track. A “three days in, two days out” or “two days in, three days out” hybrid model is emerging as a popular workplace plan, as a compromise between managers who want closer tabs on their people, and employees who feel happier and more productive working from home. But like most compromises, the 3-2 model leaves almost everyone feeling dissatisfied, prompting us to call it the “worst return-to-office strategy.”
On the surface, the 3-2 model feels right: It provides a measure of autonomy that employees likely didn’t have pre-pandemic, and it increases the sense of status, certainty and autonomy for leaders who feel the need to closely oversee their employees. In addition, many managers like it because they feel it’s easier to create and maintain a company culture when employees share a physical space. The 3-2 plan also plays into two common biases — expedience bias, which prompts us to act quickly rather than taking the time to fully understand a situation; and experience bias, which tells us that our perception (work is more efficient from an office) is the objective truth.
Because the 3-2 model sounds so good on paper, it’s been a shock to company leaders that many employees just aren’t buying it. A recent survey found that 76% of Apple employees are dissatisfied with the company’s return-to-office plan, and 56% are looking at other options because of the in-office requirement. Even top execs — such as Apple’s machine learning director, Ian Goodfellow —are resigning over the requirement that they spend at least a couple of days per week in the office.
So why is the 3-2 model so deeply dissatisfying? It takes away the autonomy that many employees have grown to expect during the past two years: the freedom to set their own hours, integrate work and family life, and avoid stressful and costly commutes. Along with this comes increased control over the rest of one’s life: including having better sleep patterns, being able to exercise more, even control your diet better. Taking away this amount of autonomy triggers a threat response in our brains that makes us feel frustrated, anxious, and uncertain. Doing this at a time when many of us are still emotionally raw can add fuel to the fire.
In contrast, managers often experience higher levels of certainty, status, and relatedness when physically in the office, but these rewarding workplace feelings are overshadowed by the much larger threat responses experienced by employees. Negative emotions from a reduction in autonomy are likely to be stronger than the positive emotions from gaining a similar amount of relatedness.
Another downside of the 3-2 model is that it could actually harm overall productivity. Many people feel that they’re most efficient when working from home, and estimates indicate that productivity levels of employees working from home have risen anywhere from 5% to 29%. Meanwhile, others (particularly extroverts) thrive in an office environment. Force either group to spend a proscribed number of days in the office or at home, and productivity suffers.
To be sure, there are real benefits to meeting in person, which include getting to know your coworkers, building social capital, and creating a sense of community and connectedness. Also, some jobs, like lab technicians or aircraft mechanics, simply can’t be done at home.
For positions that can be performed remotely, though, the question comes down to the right dosage of time spent in the office. If the 3-2 model isn’t the answer, companies can navigate the choppy waters of hybrid work by trying these ideas.
Experiment, and then experiment again.
With no one-size-fits-all model to manage a return to the office, and everyone still in relatively uncharted territory, it makes sense to experiment. NASA, for example, is letting people with jobs that can be done from home choose any two days per two-week pay period to spend in the office. “We’re trying to be as flexible as we can, and we’re spending the next six months or so experimenting with what works because we don’t know,” says Frank Gonzalez, deputy director for the office of diversity and equal opportunity at NASA.
Not all experiments are successful. If you try an approach and discover employees hate it, don’t be afraid to acknowledge your mistakes and try again. Take a growth mindset approach, where you view mistakes as opportunities to get better.
Recognize that your culture was never the building.
Maybe your company is still paying rent and utilities for a five-story building with a gourmet cafeteria and amazing wellness center. It’s a shame to let all that go to waste, right? So why not force people back to enjoy it all?
The truth is, even with these perks, many people still prefer working from home, and they won’t “enjoy” being forced to do anything. The good news is that company culture is defined by shared everyday habits, not the brick and mortar of a building. A digital culture is more inclusive because it allows people to connect across wider geographic areas. There are many upsides to digital working – being able to connect with anyone, anywhere, briefly and regularly. This doesn’t mean you should sell all your real estate, but it might be time to downsize or reconfigure physical office space if you find much of it is going unused. Perhaps experiment with bringing different teams together once a month for a few days to work around each other, and once a quarter bring all those teams together at the same time. And let the people who know they are more productive outside the home come to the office when they want to.
Require in-person meetings only when science shows they are better.
Before you’re tempted to restart in-person weekly team meetings, first ask if there’s a compelling reason to do so. And consider both the upsides but also the downsides of bringing people back in. What do we know about things that are actually better in person? Building relationships is an obvious one: having unrushed time to get to know someone over lunch is hard to replace with the zoom call. Research also shadows there can be a bump when working on creative tasks. A recent study in Nature found that face-to-face interactions produced more ideas, and more creative ones, than virtual interactions. But when making decisions as to which ideas to pursue, video calls were just as effective.
A word of caution – don’t necessarily drag people back to the office to do a workshop: Our research has shown that well designed virtual learning can be 50% more effective than in-person learning for driving behavior change, not to mention radically faster and more scalable.
Remember, we’re all still searching for the “new normal,” and nobody knows quite what that will look like. In the meantime, giving employees as much autonomy as possible will help you attract and retain talent, as well as increase productivity. Or, as some Apple employees recently wrote in an open letter directed to the company’s executive team, “ … let us decide how we work best, and let us do the best work of our lives.”