Work Life

The hidden reason companies want you back in the office

By Jim Grey (about)

It’s all over the news: workers are quitting their jobs instead of giving up working from home.

Who blames them? So much work can be done from wherever there’s a good Internet connection. Your commute is a quick trip downstairs or down the hall. You have fewer interruptions. You can much more fluidly blend work and life.

Yet many companies want people back in the office. It defies logic — until you consider that company leaders are sick of Zoom. They are ready to meet in person again.

Think about it. What do your managers do all day? If they’re anything like me, they sit in a lot of meetings. On a typical day, I have six hours of meetings. During the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time on Zoom — and it’s exhausting. I’m spent at the end of each day like I never was before. I think many people in leadership have the same experience.

The Pyramids
The Pyramids, distinctive office buildings here in Indianapolis

This could be driving us to want people to come back to the office, and to think that working together in the office is better. It is, for us leaders. We would do well to remember that most people in our companies are doing just fine at home.

I’m sure that if I were doing the kind of work I did before I moved into leadership many years ago — coding, testing, writing — I would not want to return to the office with all of its noise and interruptions. But as a leader, absent a radical shift in how the kind of work I do gets done, I will prefer to talk with people in person, which means being in the office.

I went to the office on Tuesday for a big group meeting. Leaders in Product, Engineering, and Architecture met to figure out the platform and architecture work necessary to support the product roadmap. We met all day, and then we went out for dinner together.

I normally hate all-day meetings. But Tuesday was glorious. Our discussion was fluid; we even bantered. Nobody froze because of Internet problems. During breaks, we talked casually. We accomplished a great deal and we built camaraderie. And, critically, I had energy to spare at day’s end.

The next day I worked from home. One of my meetings was with the CTO and the VP of Product, both of whom happened to be in the office. They were able to talk easily and I struggled a little to get a word in edgewise via Zoom. I regretted not driving in!

There are real disadvantages to going back to the office. I’ll gain a long commute back. I’ll no longer be able to throw in a load of laundry, or ride my bike over lunch, or even start dinner immediately at quitting time. Heck, during the pandemic there were even a few afternoons when, after a rough night’s sleep, I took a 30-minute snooze. That was amazing — and impossible in the office, as there’s nowhere to do it, and it’s generally frowned upon anyway.

But I will happily trade those things away to regain good, fluid, personal conversations with people, and be less drained at day’s end.

Many people I work with will keep working from home. That’s fine; I can Zoom with them from the office. But most leaders at my company will return to the office four or five days a week. Most of my meetings involve them anyway, and we will meet in person.

Companies will be wise to remember that experiences vary depending on the nature of the job and role, and work to find compromises that give people as much of what they want as possible, in terms of where they work.