Why your boss is giving in to the siren call of the return to the office–and giving up on the flexible work gold mine

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Why your boss is giving in to the siren call of the return to the office–and giving up on the flexible work gold mine

The results from a recent poll of over 150 U.S. CEOs by Chief Executive reveals a startling reason why many companies are enforcing a return to the office. The study indicates that many organizations are struggling to foster strong communication, collaboration, and team bonding in these environments.

As a result, some companies such as Amazon and Salesforce are pivoting back to traditional in-person work models to address these issues and enhance overall workforce engagement. However, is this retreat to familiar territory the best course of action?

In an equivalent 2022 poll, a mere 31% of U.S. businesses functioned on-site. That included those unable to operate remotely due to the nature of their work, such as factories and retail. 

However, this figure experienced a significant increase in 2023, reaching 46%. The percentage of hybrid companies dropped from 61% in 2022 to 48% in 2023, while the proportion of entirely remote companies declined from 7% to 5% during the same time frame.

It’s no secret that humans are creatures of habit. When faced with challenges in unfamiliar territory, it’s all too tempting to return to what we know. That’s precisely what’s happening with companies grappling with remote and hybrid work models. They find themselves in uncharted waters and, rather than learning to adapt, they’re tempted to go back to the cozy confines of the office-centric model. However, retreating to familiar ground means sacrificing many of the benefits that remote and hybrid work arrangements offer.

The opposition to flexible work is rather unexpected, considering that in 2022, when CEOs were asked if they were content with their chosen work model, 60% of those using remote or hybrid models responded “yes.” A barely noticeable 0.5% expressed intentions to revert to in-person work once the pandemic subsided.

Intriguingly, the 2023 survey revealed that a mere 5% of companies operating with remote or hybrid arrangements reported decreased performance due to the shift. So, this begs the question: what happened?

The survey describes how an engineering industry CEO stated that offering flexibility indeed makes it much easier to attract and retain talent. However, he said it also demands more effort from leadership across the organization, including a heightened need for intentional communication, collaborative work distribution, and relationship cultivation. CEOs have reported difficulties in achieving the same degree of engagement and participation from remote employees as they did from their in-office counterparts.

Remote and hybrid work arrangements have proven to deliver increased employee productivity, reduced attrition, and access to a global talent market. By going back to the traditional in-person work model, companies are willingly turning their backs on these advantages. It’s akin to discovering a goldmine and then deciding to return to panning for gold in a river. Sure, it’s familiar, but it’s also shortsighted and far less lucrative.

So, what’s the solution? How can we avoid the pitfalls of remote and hybrid work without sacrificing the benefits?

How our brains sabotage flexible work success

I talk to dozens of leaders each month about these issues, and what I inevitably find is that they try to shoehorn their traditional office-centric models of collaboration into hybrid and remote work. Naturally, they find that the result is weakened culture, collaboration, team bonding, communication, and so on. The solution is not to go back to the traditional office-centric model. 

The solution is to adopt methods of building culture, collaboration, team bonding, and communication that are a good fit for a hybrid environment. Then, you get the best of both worlds. 

And yes, it does take more effort at first–just like it takes some effort to adopt any new system and learn new ways of collaborating. What you get is a permanent boost to your ability to attract and retain talent, productivity, morale, and well-being.

Unfortunately, a major challenge to getting the best of both worlds is the role of cognitive biases in shaping our decisions and perceptions. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in our thinking that influence our judgment, often leading us to make irrational choices. In the context of hybrid work, two specific cognitive biases stand out as particularly detrimental: status quo bias and functional fixedness.

The status quo bias refers to our tendency to prefer the current state of affairs over change, even when the alternative may be more beneficial. This bias plays a significant role in the reluctance of organizations to fully embrace remote and hybrid work models. Many leaders, influenced by the status quo bias, perceive a return to traditional in-person work as the safest and most familiar course of action. In doing so, they fail to recognize the potential benefits and opportunities of hybrid work arrangements.

To overcome this bias, leaders must actively challenge their assumptions and beliefs about remote and hybrid work. By consciously weighing the pros and cons of various work models and considering the long-term implications, companies can make more informed decisions that embrace innovation and growth.

Functional fixedness is another cognitive bias that hinders our ability to adapt to hybrid work environments. This bias refers to the tendency to see objects or situations only in terms of their traditional use or function. In the context of hybrid work, functional fixedness leads organizations to apply conventional office-centric models to remote and hybrid environments, which ultimately results in weakened culture, collaboration, team bonding, and communication.

To counteract functional fixedness, companies must challenge their assumptions about how work should be done and explore new ways to build culture, foster collaboration, and enhance communication in remote and hybrid settings.

Companies must create a hybrid-friendly culture, rethink how they communicate, leverage technology for collaboration, prioritize team bonding, invest in training, and prioritize mentoring.

It’s clear that the solution to the challenges presented by remote and hybrid work is not to return to traditional in-person work models. Instead, companies must learn to adapt and embrace the unique opportunities that these new environments offer. By doing so, they can enjoy increased productivity, reduced attrition, and access to a global talent market.

The future of work is here, and it’s time for organizations to stop running from it. The wise will adapt, evolving their strategies to create a new normal that leverages the strengths of hybrid work models–and preserves the best of both worlds.

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D., (aka “the office whisperer) helps tech and finance industry executives drive collaboration, innovation, and retention in hybrid work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of 7 books, including Never Go With Your Gut and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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Forbes Staff

Forbes Staff is an official member of the esteemed Forbes team, dedicated to delivering high-quality content and insightful journalism. With a deep understanding of the industry and a passion for uncovering compelling stories, Forbes Staff brings their expertise to the world of fashion. As a trusted member of the Forbes team, they contribute to the renowned Forbes platform, providing readers with valuable insights into the global fashion landscape.

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