The Benefits of Returning To the Physical Office

The debate over whether to have employees return to the office has been one of the most widely discussed business topics of the past few months. While some point to remote/hybrid work as the new normal—something that employers will simply have to adapt to in order to recruit and retain talent—there is growing support for a return to physical offices from some of the world’s most prominent business leaders and companies.

From former Google CEO Eric Schmidt commenting “I don’t know how you build great management virtually” or Apple CEO Tim Cook describing “the irreplaceable benefits of in-person collaboration,” to Bank of America and Goldman Sachs requiring employees to work 5 days in the office, it’s clear that remote work will not be the new normal for all that some have predicted.

Advocates of work from home models point to benefits such as increased productivity and employee morale. While these may make sense on the surface, a deeper dive into the data captured in the two years since the onset of Covid suggests that work from home may not be right for every employee or team.

Reduces Productivity: A recent Microsoft study found that remote staff work nearly one hour more per day than those who work in office. Taking that statistic alone at face value would certainly support the notion that remote work is good for business. However, many comprehensive research studies have proven that more hours don’t necessarily equate to increased productivity. For example, a Chicago Booth Review study of 10,000 workers revealed that while total hours worked increased by 30 percent for remote workers, overall productivity decreased by 20 percent.

Decreases Collaboration: Despite the rise of remote work tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, Tim Cook’s concerns about collaboration are warranted. A study of more than 60,000 workers published in Journal Nature Human Behavior revealed that remote work led to a 25% decrease in collaboration. The study went on to report that organizational structures became less dynamic leading to silos and isolation.

Increases Burnout: Finally, as it relates to employee morale, remote work arrangements do not have the benefits many point to. A Gallup poll found that fully remote workers experience a significantly higher level of burnout than on-site workers. When you consider that the majority of HR leaders report that burnout is responsible for up to half of annual workforce turnover, this is not something to take lightly.

Our experience with work from home has been similar to what I’ve heard from other organizations. Initially, we actually saw an increase in productivity. However, once the novelty wore off, we began to see many of the issues mentioned by others that I referenced earlier.

The biggest obstacles for us were the decrease in relationship building between front-line leaders and associates. This is particularly important in our industry, where the relationship and trust-building between an agent and his or her supervisor is extremely critical. Additionally, training was much more difficult. We require a higher level of custom training for our employees than many other industries. While we were able to adapt quickly and implement virtual training thanks to our Business Continuity Plan, we know that in-person, hands-on training works best to master the skills necessary to become a great universal agent.

I’m not here to diminish those companies who are committed to remote or hybrid arrangements for the long term. It may very well work for them. But ultimately, we believe that work from home is not for everyone.

We will continue to offer remote arrangements as a benefit reserved for highly tenured or high-performing individuals who have proven they can be productive. These individuals will have a huge incentive to perform so that they can continue to experience this benefit. We are testing new software that promotes collaboration and team building for work from home employees.

In my experience, a fully remote and isolated environment across the board will not support engagement, transparency, team collaboration and team building. Our clients turn to us for innovation and fresh ideas. In my 30 years of experience, I’ve found no better place for these great ideas to be generated than in person by a group of engaged leaders and employees.