Reporting to the office a mere one or two times a week has become a game of "How Did I Ever?"
As in: How did I ever do this five days a week? How did I ever have dinner on the table by 6:30? How did I ever remember to pack a lunch, gym shoes, laptop and chargers? How did I ever meet my deadlines with so many co-workers to catch up with? How did I ever go a week without having to Slack my colleagues a morning message of shame to please open the door because I've forgotten my badge?
It's likely others will be playing the same game this fall. Now that Labor Day has come and gone, companies are again trying to bring workers back. Ever since the pandemic, September is when employees promise they'll return to their cubicles, and bosses say that this time they're serious.
But this might be the year employers use the stick more than the carrot (and hummus) approach.
Maybe the days of free snacks and office pingpong to lure workers in are on their way out. Amazon is putting the squeeze on remote workers who fail to head to the office at least three days a week. Facebook's parent company, Meta, is also tightening its three-day-a-week mandate, warning that employees may lose their jobs if they don't show up to their assigned offices. Even President Joe Biden is telling Cabinet members to bring federal workers back to the office this fall.
I'm personally a fan of in-person interactions in the workplace. I enjoy the collaboration and creativity that can arise from unplanned conversations, as well as the personal bonds that can develop from being in close proximity to one's colleagues. Communication feels more open and less tense when these relationships can deepen. For most people, reporting to the office a couple of days a week should not be seen as an unreasonable demand.
But I also think employers that mandate a return to the office and threaten termination are missing the mark.
For more than three years, arguments for and against remote work have focused too much on productivity. Many workers insist they are just as productive, or even more so, when they can work from home. Managers fear a loss of productivity when offices go dark. Of course productivity is important. But successful organizations — the places that instill loyalty and stickiness among its employees — can also be measured by something less tangible: a sense that the work is rewarding, connected, meaningful and even fun.
Retaining younger workers
When our cohort of interns flocked the Star Tribune newsroom this summer, they brought with them energy and innovation, as young people often do. Most were in the office far more often than regular employees. (The Strib is "encouraging" workers to be in the office at least twice a week starting in October, but has not issued any mandate.) When I asked a few of these Gen Zers if they wanted to be in person, the answer was always yes.
It shouldn't be a surprise. Younger workers, as well as those who are newer to an organization, have more to gain from working in a physical setting where there are more opportunities for ongoing feedback, training, even learning by osmosis.
My first journalism job out of college was in Kentucky. One day I overheard a veteran political reporter refuse to back down during a confrontational phone interview. He calmly told his subject: "If you didn't want to be in the newspaper for breaking the law, you shouldn't-a-dunnit."
Moments like that shaped me. But companies can't simply mandate a return to the office in the name of career development for younger hires. They ought to be intentional about creating systems of support, communication and mentorship, especially when onboarding new talent.
Similarly, it's not enough to assume collaboration and creativity will automatically happen just by issuing in-person edicts. Departments should assess which individuals would benefit the most from working together and agree on "anchor days" — usually midweek — when activities such as meetings, training and networking happen.
We all know why: In this hybrid era, there's nothing worse than having to slog through rush hour and pay $14 for parking only to sit among a sea of empty desks and log into Teams.
Before instituting a return-to-office policy, companies should also assess: How flexible is our culture for working parents and caregivers, who are juggling other responsibilities? How accessible is our office to workers with disabilities? What accommodations do we offer to people with health concerns? Are we creating a place that excites people to be there, and experience at least a little FOMO when they're not?
We will never go back to a five-day workweek in the office. Smart leaders can help employees see the value of being together and set the conditions for in-person moments to matter.