Why executives love the office

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AN OFFICE EAST intended to bring people together. Instead, he has become a source of division. For some, the post-pandemic return to work is an opportunity to reestablish the boundaries between home and work, and to see colleagues in the flesh. For others, it only represents unnecessary travel and increased health risks. Many ingredients determine these preferences. But one spring: seniority.

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Slack, a messaging company, regularly surveys knowledge workers around the world about the future of work. Its latest poll, released in October, found that executives are much more likely to return to the office than other employees. Of those senior managers who worked remotely, 75% wanted to be in the office three days a week or more; only 34% of non-executives feel the same.

The divide has manifested itself publicly in some companies. Earlier this year, Apple employees wrote an open letter to Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, objecting to the assumption that they were thirsty to go back to their desks: “Looks like There is a mismatch between the way the management team thinks about remote / flexible on-site working and the lived experiences of many Apple employees. Why are bigwigs so attached to the office?

Three explanations come to mind: the cynical, the nice and the unconscious. The cynic is that executives love the status the office confers. They sit in nicer rooms on the upper floors with plush rugs. Their access is guarded, politely but fiercely. When they walk upstairs, it’s an event. When they sit in meeting rooms, they get the best chairs. On Zoom, the status signals are weaker. Nobody gets a bigger tile. Their greatest privilege is not muting, which isn’t quite the same rush of power as using the Executive Dining Room.

The gracious explanation is that executives think face-to-face interactions are better for the institutions they run. Working from home “doesn’t work for people who want to hustle, doesn’t work for culture, doesn’t work for idea generation,” said Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, earlier this year. Ken Griffin, the boss of Citadel, a hedge fund, warned young people not to work from home: “It is incredibly difficult to have the managerial and interpersonal experiences you need to advance your career in such an environment. remote work. “

These concerns have substance. Virtual work risks creating silos: people are more likely to spend time with colleagues they already know. Corporate culture can be more easily understood in three dimensions. Deep relationships are harder to form with a slow internet connection. A 2010 study found that physical proximity between co-authors was a good predictor of the impact of scientific papers: the greater the distance between them, the less likely they were to be cited. Even remote work evangelists take the time to physically assemble. “Digital first doesn’t mean never in person,” says Brian Elliott, who leads Slack’s future of work research.

But the benefits of the office can also be overstated. The Allen Curve, which shows how the frequency of communication decreases as co-workers are estranged from each other, was formulated in the 1970s but still rings true today. Every workplace has corners that people never visit; no chasm is greater than that between the floors. And the disadvantages of remote working can be overcome with a little thought. Research by a trio of Harvard Business School professors found that lockdown-era interns who were able to spend time with senior executives in a “virtual water cooler” were much more likely to receive full-time job postings than those who haven’t.

If physical workspaces have drawbacks and remote working can be improved, why are executives clear in their preferences? The subconscious provides a third explanation. Like Gianpiero Petriglieri from INSEAD, a French business school, observes: “the people who advise young people to enter the office are those who have made their way in this environment. Executives who have been successful working in an office are the least likely to question its effectiveness.

This is a problem, especially since a majority of executives say they have designed return-to-work policies with little employee involvement. A hybrid future is looming, in which workers divide their time between home and office. Managers need to improve both environments, without assuming that one is clearly superior to the other.

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Why Executives Love the Office”


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