Returning to the office: Employees who show up in person often get ahead faster

August 2, 2021, 9:00 AM UTC

What if people who work in an office perform better than people who work from home? What if they get promoted more quickly and receive larger, more frequent pay raises? And what if all this happens not because bosses are irrationally biased against remote workers, but because employees in the office do better work?

Haltingly, perhaps awkwardly, the working world is about to embark on a gigantic natural experiment that will test those hypotheses. Much is riding on the outcome. High-profile CEOs—notably Goldman Sachs’s David Solomon, dean of the bring-’em-back-to-the-office school, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, champion of the let-’em-stay-home faction—may be proved wise or foolish. But going in, it must be said—and many people won’t like this—that the pro-office argument has a lot going for it.

Proponents of WFH often claim that remote workers are more productive than office workers, but that’s far from clear. Some research supports the claim; other research refutes it. A Fortune survey in June found that 45% of U.S. workers who are partially or fully remote said they’re more productive at home; 55% said they’re equally (40%) or less productive (15%). Even when remote workers are more productive, David Lewin, a professor and HR expert at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, questions the durability of any advantage. “If you’re reviewing mortgage loan applications, you can certainly do more from home,” he says. “You’ve got these kind of unlimited hours. But for how long will that last? Can you keep that up for three years instead of one?”

For some jobs—designers, CFOs, scientists—the whole notion of productivity is troubled. “Many measures of performance are highly subjective,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor and organizational behavior expert at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “When companies talk about measuring productivity, I roll my eyes because most of it is nonsense.” (He used a more pungent term than “nonsense.”)

The best known element of the pro-office argument is the claim that unplanned in-person conversations are the richest source of new ideas. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who plans to bring nearly all employees back to the office, told shareholders in his annual letter that remote work “virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity.” Steve Jobs was that view’s most famous and most passionate believer. “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” he told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” When he ran the Pixar animation studio in the 1990s, he designed the headquarters “to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium,” he told Isaacson. Jobs followed the same principle in designing Apple Park, the vast headquarters he didn’t live to see. The notion that ideas could be developed via digital communication, he said, was “crazy.”

Little wonder that CEO Tim Cook wants most employees back in the workplace at least three days a week by early October, with some teams expected to be on-site four or five days a week. In a note to staff in June, he said “there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other. Videoconference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

He’s right. Specifically: When we’re together in person, talking face-to-face, the pupils of our eyes constrict and dilate in response to one another. We’re not aware it’s happening, but research finds that deep in our brains, trust is building. We unconsciously mimic each other’s body language, which also strengthens trust. Ditto with facing one another directly, not at an angle. Researchers have found that trust is the bedrock foundation of creativity and innovation, and, they say, there’s only one way to get it: “There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction to build up this trust.”

None of it happens on Zoom.

As the pandemic took hold, researchers knew well what the price of closing the office would be. MIT’s Alex Pentland, who has done pioneering work on human interaction for years, told Fortune last summer what employees and organizations lose when working remotely: “the feeling of connection and being a member of a team, and all the incidental conversations and nonlinguistic cues that get people on the same page and aligned, as well as the serendipity that is the source of most innovation.”

So which argument is winning? Many companies are taking a middle course, adopting a hybrid model requiring that office employees show up, but not full-time. How well it works is a central question in the great experiment. Johnson & Johnson’s message to employees: “When it is safe to do so, we want you to return to the workplace,” HR chief Peter Fasolo told Fortune. “It doesn’t have to be five days a week, but it sure needs to be once a month or one day a week.” Maybe three days are enough—or more precisely, maybe three days are okay, four are better, and five are better still. Or maybe there’s no significant difference. For now, we just don’t know.

But another factor, little discussed so far, will influence who comes to the office and when, regardless of company policy. How it plays out is another key question in the experiment. The factor is ambition.

Let’s assume reasonably that at many companies—not all, but many—the CEO will be in the office five days a week. It’s a fair bet that the CEO’s direct reports will do the same, and their direct reports, at least those who aspire to rise further, will also follow suit as boss emulation cascades through the organization. On any given day some of those employees will be out of the office as business travel resumes, but they’re unlikely to be Zooming from home.

Over time, the organization’s employees will sort themselves into two groups: those intent on promotion and those who are content to do their jobs with little advancement in pay or position. That’s nothing new; employees have always sorted themselves that way. What’s new is that the two groups won’t be working together as much as they used to. One group will be in the office as often as possible, the other, at least many of them, as seldom as possible.

That scenario “is very, very plausible,” says Pfeffer. But not inevitable. Millennials and Gen Z could blow it up. “This generation understands something very profound, which is you cannot buy time,” he says. “If you’ve wasted a year and failed to see your kids grow up, you cannot have that year back.” That may be why 57% of U.S. millennial workers who are now partially or fully remote say they’ll likely look for a new job if their employer requires them to work fully in person post-pandemic, a Fortune survey finds. Maybe even the sharpest workers in their twenties and thirties will refuse to emulate an older boss who spends five (or more) long days each week in the office. And yet plenty of brilliant young people enthusiastically spend every waking hour in the modest digs of the startup they’re building. How will these conflicting trends play out?

It’s a vast experiment. In an epochal shift of how work gets done, which models will work best? How will they vary across workplaces? We should have at least some results in a year. Just remember that those result by themselves won’t determine winners and losers. The winners will not be those who have chosen one model or another, but those who dispassionately accept the experiment’s results, whatever they may be, expected or surprising—not “finding” what they want to find, but fearlessly embracing whatever a fast-changing world is telling us.

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