Work from home or return to office? The great debate of 2021 is a multiheaded monster.
Is remote work the new paradigm? Or will everyone return to the office after the pandemic fades away? Do employees prefer the new work-from-home lifestyle? Or are they itching to get back into the building? Are people more productive working remotely because there are fewer distractions? Or are they less productive working remotely because there are more distractions?
If you’ve been following the debate, there’s only one thing you can say for certain: Every expert thinks they have the right answer.
Two immediate problems present themselves. The first is that people, even experts, can be biased and project their own attitudes and preferences onto others. The second problem is an age-old one that happens to be the root of many misguided presumptions: failing to understand that no two individuals are identical, especially when it comes to workplace preferences.
When we’re talking about the tens of millions of people whose jobs could be done remotely (i.e., nearly every white-collar office worker in America), it’s an egregious oversimplification to say “employees want X/Y” or to assert that every employee will perform better and be more productive in the identical set of working conditions.
Sometimes, when a debate rages on and on with little progress, it helps to step back, take a broad look at the situation, and consider, what if we’re asking the wrong questions?
Perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “Are employees more productive working remotely or in the office?” but, “How can we maximize employee productivity wherever people work?”
Here’s the exciting part that should give business leaders hope. Unlike the former question, which only leads to conjecture and editorializing, the latter already has an answer, and it’s one we’ve known all along: We maximize productivity through employee engagement.
It has been proven again and again that people are more productive when they find their work engaging and meaningful, so instead harping on where they do it, maybe we should emphasize the work itself. Or to be more pinpoint, we should be matching people to jobs rather than locations.
When people have jobs that align with their intrinsic strengths, motivations, and interests, they are more engaged and satisfied. They’re happier, more productive, and easier to retain. Because humans are not static beings, some will feel more engaged and less distracted when working on site and interacting face to face with peers, while others will find a home office to be a more effective environment for them. That’s all part of matching the person to the job.
Wherever you stand regarding the questions posed at the top of this page, we can all agree that the working world is different now. It doesn’t matter if the pandemic forced that change or merely accelerated change that was coming anyway. As has always been the case, businesses must accept and embrace change or risk becoming obsolete. Businesses must also continue to devote care and attention to their greatest resource, their workers, or lose them to organizations that prioritize talent and engagement.
Let’s refocus on what people do, not where they do it. It’s a more, well, productive conversation.