Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

Going to the office is the new ‘remote work’

July 7, 2022, 10:14 AM UTC
Going back to the office breaks a well-established habit in order to do something completely new–and that new thing is not an obvious winner.
Getty Images

As companies call workers back to the office, many employees are pushing back. In fact, two-thirds of the workforce said they would consider looking for a new job if they were required to return to the office full time, according to a survey of more than 32,000 workers by ADP Research Institute.

Whether issuing mandates or luring people back with onsite amenities and perks, these efforts misunderstand a critical psychological component of RTO resistance: After two years of working from home, working at the office is now the new “remote.”

It all comes down to habits and the human brain. Research suggests that the mind loves automaticity more than just about anything else–certainly more than engaging in conscious consideration. Given a choice, it would like to do the same things again and again. That makes sense. Conscious decisions take lots of physical energy because our brain is the biggest user of energy in our bodies. If we can do many things without thinking–driven by unconscious habit–we can save the mind’s available energy for times when we really need to think. Hence, our minds have evolved to favor habit over thinking whenever we can get away with it.

For tens of millions of Americans, COVID-19 disrupted an important and largely unthinking habit: going to their place of work. That habit involved getting up early, battling traffic, buying your Starbucks, getting to your desk, working all day, wrapping up, battling traffic, and returning home (often with childcare duties and drop-offs and pick-ups in the mix for working parents).

Many aspects of this habit were not particularly pleasant. But it was a habit, so it had privilege above every other possible alternative. Tens of millions of American workers were largely on autopilot with respect to their jobs when the pandemic hit.

However, when a habit is broken, its privileged position disappears and a new habit takes shape–in this case working from home. The subconscious gives privilege to that new habit, and it quickly becomes the default habit.

Right now, the general narrative in business is one of “going back” to the “normal” place of work. But for the workers’ subconscious, going to the office isn’t going back to normal. Employees don’t think they are working remotely. In fact, their subconscious thinks that going to the office is the new “remote.” It is breaking a now well-established habit in order to do something completely new–and that new thing is not an obvious winner.

When you have a habit, there is typically no conscious evaluation of the choice. You just do it. But being faced with a new choice will cause all sorts of deliberation. Do I actually like my job, my colleagues, etc.? Or might I like something else a lot better?

Instead of framing it as “going back,” employers should approach this as if they are competing for customers with a new offering. Thanks to habit, working from home now has a competitive advantage over working at the office.

Employers must realize that they are competing against an entrenched competitor. Some of their target “customers” are perfectly happy with their current habit, so it’s best to let them go—it’s an uphill battle you are unlikely to win. Some “customers” hate their current habit, so simply welcome them to the new offering. It will take some time to entrench the new habit, and they may complain about some aspects and express longing for other parts of their previous habit. Just be patient and allow the new habit of working at the office to slowly push working from home into the mists of time.

The trickiest employees are those who have mixed feelings and are not happily adapting to the new offering. Some of their current habit is both comfortable but unpleasant. The new offering (working at the office) has some features that are attractive, but not all. If you want happy and motivated employees, telling them how it is going to be is unlikely to work. Rather, think as if you were attempting to win a new customer that has been with another supplier for at least a couple of years. You are unlikely to cause them to break their current habit and convert to you by simply telling them what your offer is. You will need to listen carefully to them, ask them what would make the transition easiest and most beneficial, and then customize your approach accordingly.

Otherwise, you will have a different challenge: finding a new worker to fill the hole you helped to create by ignoring the power of habit.

Roger L. Martin, an author and adviser, is the former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. He is the author of the new book A New Way to Think: Your Guide to Superior Management Effectiveness.

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

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.