Many people are convinced that post-pandemic corporate America will have a hybrid workforce, in which most people work from home and companies save on real estate and perks. As a behavioral scientist who spent the last two years researching and writing a book about connection, trust, and belonging, I’m betting pretty much everyone eventually will go back to the office.
Here are four reasons.
The Allen Curve. Thomas J. Allen, a professor of management at MIT, discovered in the 1970s that communication between people in an office increased exponentially the closer their desks were. If they were about 50 meters apart, they might as well have been on different planets. And even in the age of Slack, email, and Zoom, the fact remains: Out of sight is often out of mind. If some employees are seen only at video meetings, there is less chance the rest of the community will value them.
As Allen wrote in 2006, “We do not keep separate sets of people, some of whom we communicate with by one medium and some by another. The more often we see someone face-to-face, the more likely it is that we will also telephone that person or communicate by another medium.” Remote work may be fine if you are a freelancer hired for a specific job or if you are a salesperson in the field, but in the hybrid office where some people are in person and others are remote, working from home has serious implications for being recognized and appreciated and getting bonuses and promotions.
Trust. As distance increases, teams need higher levels of trust to function. And trust is traditionally created through little actions that are more fluid in person.
These dynamics are so powerful that behavioral scientists have names for them like the “IKEA effect” — which is our propensity to care more about anyone or anything we put effort into, like the flat-pack furniture we assemble — and the “vulnerability loop,” which is when people come to trust each other more by demonstrating vulnerability and finding that other people respond by revealing their own vulnerability in return. When we are face to face, this is a basic part of interaction, as in the side conversations we have between meetings.
To accomplish this in a meaningful way at a distance requires significantly more planning, and a weekly Zoom happy hour where the extroverts talk over everyone won’t cut it. For a hybrid setup to be successful over the long term, companies might need to manufacture occasions — like games and competitions — for team members to invest effort in one another beyond emailing someone some files they need. Camaraderie tends to come out more naturally when people are regularly in the same physical space.
This might not seem like a big issue, but after more than a year of being at home, it is hard to remember what work life was like beforehand. We get used to a new normal and forget little things that made us effective. The risk is that over the long run, those who are in person will bond more strongly than those who are at a distance. Those in the office will feel a much greater sense of belonging, and those who aren’t will often be seen as outsiders or an afterthought. Sitting at home, it would be natural for people to resent those at the office getting snacks or catered meals and more quality time to impress the boss. Ultimately, a two-class system has the potential to be corrosive to a sense of trust. It could breed resentment and even paranoia.
Working from home can be too convenient. Things that are convenient aren’t necessarily good for us. Lifting weights is hard, but it makes us stronger. Similarly, it is more convenient not to have a commute or change out of our pajamas, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Having some commuting time, whether it’s walking, on public transit, or in a car, gives us an opportunity to let our minds wander and explore ideas. In these moments, you replay conversations from the day. Maybe you plan your discussion with your boss about a raise. You have time to process. Office life forces transitions and breaks throughout the day, as people shift between meeting rooms, desks, and meals and coffee. Of course, remote workers can plan breaks into their days, but most people aren’t very good at putting boundaries on their time.
Belonging. One of the greatest predictors of our longevity is whether we have close social ties. It is clear that we are not designed to be alone. Our levels of oxytocin, a hormone that is released during moments of togetherness — such as hugging — also increase when we enjoy a team success or even when we march in unison. Our species evolved in communities, and we survived because we worked together. The companies that create the greatest sense of belonging are the ones that people stay at for years. It is hard to create a sense of community and a culture of belonging at a distance, but it’s even harder when employees have dramatically different home lives and may have never even met the rest of the team.
Given all this, is it possible to have a well-functioning workforce that is largely but not entirely remote and only occasionally comes together? Only with a great deal of effort.
Employees would need constant reminders about who their team members are, so people who aren’t working in person aren’t forgotten or passed over by those who are. The company would need cultural practices that allow time for both work and open-ended idea exploration. To ensure that people experience belonging, companies would have to produce events or experiences that allow employees to connect in deep ways.
The facts suggest it would be better for employees and their companies to bring almost everyone in when it is safe enough.