Bosses say coming into the office improves culture and productivity. A new study proves them wrong

February 15, 2023, 5:26 PM UTC
woman at laptop
Almost everyone is happier when they can choose their own schedule and location, Slack’s Future Forum found.
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Bosses, future of work experts have a word of advice: Culture and productivity don’t only happen in the office.

So finds Future Forum’s latest Pulse survey, released Wednesday. A consortium under the Slack umbrella, the Future Forum has continuously run surveys of 10,000 desk workers around the world each quarter since summer 2020, and each installment has shown that flexible work positively impacts productivity, builds worker-boss trust, and reduces employee turnover. 

The latest findings reveal that flexible workers were 57% more likely than fully in-person workers to say their company culture has improved since that flexible policy was implemented. That’s no coincidence; they said flexible work policies are the primary impetus for workplace culture improvement—despite the fact that bosses seem dead set on believing culture itself is reason enough to force an office return.

“Executives say, ‘Because I grew up in a certain way and have certain experiences of workplace culture, I feel uncomfortable doing other things…going forward,’” Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum, tells Fortune. “Executives are worried about retaining culture with flexible work, but our data shows a completely different story.”

Culture can be cultivated entirely virtually, Elliott says, but “it really comes down to trust at the end of the day—give people the flexibility to work where and when they’re at their best.”

The worst mistake bosses can make is focusing on presenteeism-related metrics, like who shows up early or stays late, rather than on outcomes. That’s an example of proximity bias—preferential treatment for the people you see most often—and it usually comes at the expense of minority and parent workers.  

But executives are under immense pressure to chart an agreeable path forward, he adds. “They’re trying to figure out what’s going on, but don’t feel like they have their finger on the pulse. They’re coming back to an office that’s largely empty, and that’s making them apprehensive,” he notes. “But culture is happening, it’s just happening on digital tools.”

Workers are more productive from home, too

The Future Forum’s findings are also proof that executives’ concerns about declining productivity are unfounded. When compared with workers with no ability to shift their schedules, respondents with full schedule flexibility report 39% higher productivity and 64% greater ability to focus.

“If you’re an executive worried about productivity, stop sweating how many days people are coming in and start sweating the meetings running amok in your organization,” Elliott says. 

The most productive, focused workers likely have one thing in common: They’re not overworked. That, too, ties back to flexibility. More than half (53%) of workers dissatisfied with their company’s flexible work plan reported being burned out, compared with just 37% among workers who are satisfied. 

The lack of ability to pick one’s own hours “dramatically” worsens retention, the survey found; workers with no schedule flexibility were 2.5 times as likely to report “definitely” looking for a new job this year.

Considering that flexibility overall seems to boost worker performance, happiness, and retention, bosses might want to forgo the return to office debate. Going forward, Elliott says, “I would love to see us talk more about how people spend and use their time and less time talking about their place.

Instead of looking for definites, Elliott encourages a fundamental shift that focuses less on mandates and policies, and more on purpose and enablement. “Everyone keeps thinking, three months from now everything will be solved,” he says. “But you’re better off just learning as you go.”

Just ensure you’re communicating your plans to your people—workers at companies that are transparent about their future-of-work plans are nine times as satisfied as those at companies who keep their plans close to the chest.

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