The past several years have proved that productivity and business growth do not rely on employees going into the office every day. But are the more intangible benefits of in-person work being lost in today’s remote/hybrid workplaces? That’s the question on the minds of a lot of business leaders, particularly as they weigh the pros and cons of a “back to the office” policy. 

Some executives (particularly those who embraced remote work only because there was no other option) believe that a company cannot promote the shared values, goals, and practices that characterize a healthy culture without employees being present in the office. 

Meanwhile, other leaders recognize that getting rid of remote work options puts their business at risk of losing top talent – as the Great Resignation has shown today’s employees are more than willing to leave their employers for companies whose policies more closely reflect their own preferences. 

So what’s the right solution? Before answering that question, business leaders must face a hard truth: executives’ sentiments about returning to the office is very different than those of their employees. 

High-profile businesses have invigorated the debate around workplace mandates. 

While employees have enjoyed the newfound flexibility and freedom of remote work, executives at many companies have been eager to see employees back in the office. The argument for returning to the office hinges on the fact that remote work simply cannot replicate the sense of community, interpersonal connection, and engagement that employees experience in face-to-face settings. 

The debate around back-to-office mandates caught fire in the past month, as high-profile business leaders like Elon Musk have taken a firm stance against their staff continuing to work remotely. 

“Remote work is no longer acceptable,” read the subject line of a leaked memo Musk sent to Tesla’s executive team in June. The email went on to state that corporate employees would be required to spend at least 40 hours per week in the office or risk termination. 

Now, Musk’s controversial stance is far from the mainstream standard – only 4% of employers are requiring all employees to return to the workplace full-time. But the now-infamous Tesla memo points to a larger problem that’s emerged in the gray area of post-pandemic work: the “executive-employee disconnect”. 

If you believe executives and employees are in sync when it comes to returning to the office, consider these statistics: 

  • Three-quarters of all executives reported that they want to be in the office three to five days per week. 
  • Only one-third of employees want to come to the office three or more times per week.

Furthermore, as many as 40% of workers say they would leave their job if they were no longer allowed to work remotely. Employees’ support of continued remote work options has been so strong that other large corporations have reversed course on their planned back-to-office mandates.  

For example, Apple – who originally shared Musk’s stance on mandating in-person work – quickly delayed those plans because of employee pushback. The company modified their policy to include an opt-in option for their return-to-work program. 

Can companies maintain a thriving culture while continuing to offer remote work options?

When the remote work era began, many executives feared the impact it would have on productivity and their business’s bottom line. This fear proved to be unfounded: employees who work remotely or in hybrid settings report the same or slightly higher performance than in-office workers. 

The trickier question is about company culture and engagement. It’s undeniable that remote work makes it more challenging for businesses to build tight-knit teams of employees who collaborate well and know each other as people rather than colleagues on their laptop screens. 

It’s clear that the solution to this problem is not to force employees back into the office. These mandates may lead to employees becoming closer to one another and their work, but that benefit is offset by the negative sentiments that arise from employees being told their preferred methods of working are not acceptable. 

The problem can only be solved through compromise, as we’ve seen with the hybrid work policies of other major companies like Reddit, Airbnb, Spotify, and countless others. These corporations have enacted policies that promote flexibility, allowing employees to balance work and life through a combination of remote and in-office hours. 

But that doesn’t mean organizations have to sacrifice company culture for flexibility. In order for a remote or hybrid workplace to foster a thriving culture, business leaders must adopt the following priorities: 

1. Flexible collaboration technology. 

Can technology truly replicate the culture-building benefits of in-person work? Of course not. However, ensuring that employees have access to the right technology will go a long way in building community among dispersed workforces. 

Business leaders must prioritize employee feedback when deploying solutions such as project management platforms and communication tools. When employees enjoy using their collaboration technology, they’re far likelier to use it effectively – driving productivity, of course, but also encouraging engaging and fun interactions between employees. 

It’s important to also remember that “non-work conversations” are a critical part of in-office communication. Collaboration technology should be flexible enough to also encourage these figurative watercooler interactions. Chat apps that include different channels for personal discussion – like sharing vacation stories, pet photos, discussing sports and pop culture – might not seem like a key priority for business leaders, but they can have a huge impact on both company culture and employee happiness. 

2. Scheduled culture-building activities. 

Prior to the pandemic, team outings and all-company events were considered to be nice bonuses to reward employees for their hard work. In a remote or hybrid workforce, these culture-building activities should be seen as key priorities.  

When planning for the year ahead, business leaders should make a concerted effort to schedule semi-regular events for employees to connect with one another outside of their traditional work responsibilities. Whether it’s an all-company party or scheduled happy hour or dinners among specific teams and departments, these fun events not only help to minimize employee burnout but also bring workers much closer to their colleagues. 

In between these more elaborately planned events, companies can also encourage community-building through remote events – like team trivia, virtual happy hours, interactive cooking classes, and so on.

Lastly, it’s important that culture becomes a measurable priority. IT and HR should join forces to establish a strategy for how technology and community-building activities will work in unison to improve culture. From there, they can continuously gather employee feedback, paying close attention to how responses to these efforts vary between in-person, remote, and hybrid workers.