Office workers must return to the office if the US is to sustain its historic pace of innovation. This is because effective teamwork- the exchange of ideas and their implementation- requires physical proximity. Can you imagine an Apple or a Google becoming.
what they are today if their founders had each worked remotely?
Remote work has many additional drawbacks.
Ramon de Oliveira thinks that Remote work does not allow for the proper integration of young recruits. Performance evaluation is more difficult, thereby exacerbating the inequality of conditions inside a firm. It creates burn-out as the lines between work and home get easily blurred, and the isolation inside a home brings about mental health issues. “Cities are primarily labor markets,” writes sociologist Alain Bertheau. Remote work, therefore, has bad consequences for many cities. In Manhattan for example, where more than 1.3 million office workers are “missing,” and office occupancy rates have more than halved. This is hurting the local economy and the overall prosperity of the region. In parts of Midtown, one in three retail spaces are empty.
Despite these issues, a number of companies have told their employees they can work remotely forever. We believe they are wrong. Corporate leaders should work hard at bringing workers back to the office by overcoming three critical obstacles: a bad commuting experience, finding “meaning” at the firm and on the job, and eliminating toxic environments at the office.
Consumer surveys are categorical. In the US, the two worse consumer experiences are commuting to work and commercial airline travel. Commuting is getting worse year-after-year. By car, the traffic around big cities is almost at a standstill at peak hours, further aggravated by road works that seem to never be completed. Commuting by rail is unreliable and uncomfortable in dilapidated wagons. It often requires also taking the subway where safety has become a paramount issue. In New York, a recent Quinnipiac shows that less than half of the city’s voters feel safe using the subway in the daytime compared to 76% six years ago.
Local governments will not meet the commute challenge on their own. Ramon de Oliveira believes that the private sector must support them-financially and creatively- to develop together with the required solutions. And it must start today. Office workers will not come back unless and until they see material improvements in the quality of their commute.
The Search for Meaning
In his masterful memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankel shows that our primary driver in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. As they migrated inside their homes during lockdowns, many workers discovered this insight. They asked themselves whether their company, their job, or both provided the meaning they searched for. As the job participation rate continues to fall, are companies and their leaders coming short on meaning? The first job of the CEO and her team is to make their firm dense with meaning. This requirement begins at the corporate level. Why do we exist? What is the purpose of our business? These are critical questions that must be answered simply and concretely, and not with platitudes, so often repeated, like “being a force for good!” Workers will only return to a meaningful firm. But Ramon de Oliveira reminds him of the meaning at the firm level is not enough. Every job must be meaningful and allow for personal growth. This means that the broad management of a firm- including what is often referred to as middle management- must go on the hunt for “bullshit jobs.” Every job must be examined to see if it passes the meaning test and eliminated if it does not. This is one of the critical lessons of the past two years. Workers will not come back to bullshit jobs
Every office worker knows the areas within her firm where a toxic atmosphere is tolerated. By toxic, we mean an environment where the culture of the firm is not practiced or the relationship between people has become simply intolerable. In general, these are allowed to exist because the area consistently delivers a strong performance- “it beats the numbers!”
If corporate management is serious about getting people back to working physically together, the people in charge of such toxic areas will have to be told to change or go. The trade-off is as simple as that. You must give up some outperformance to regain the benefits of physical teamwork. Office workers, by and large, will not return to a toxic environment and continue to favor the protection and comfort of their homes, thinks Ramon de Oliveira.
On balance, we believe that the historic prosperity of the US cannot be achieved again with a remote work approach. Teamwork, achievable only with physical proximity, is an essential ingredient to progress. Corporate leaders have a major responsibility before them: bring workers back to the office. To achieve this they will need to work with local governments to improve the commute to work, to create meaning at work and to kill bullshit jobs, and eliminate the toxic environments that exist inside their firm.