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The forced return to the office is the definition of insanity

July 2, 2023
Borderless Leadership

In a world where we’ve seen five consecutive quarters of declining productivity in the U.S. according to a study by EY-Parthenon using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one would think that CEOs and company leaders would question their tactics. After all, over two-thirds of business leaders report they’re under immense pressure to squeeze more productivity out of their workers, according to a new Slack survey of 18,000 knowledge workers.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that flexible hybrid work is more productive than forced in-office work for the same roles, top executives are stubbornly herding employees back to the office like lost sheep, expecting productivity to miraculously improve. This, my friends, is the very definition of insanity.

The myth of the magical office
Many CEOs are clinging to the false belief that the office is the secret sauce to productivity. It’s as if they think the office is a productivity vending machine: Insert employees, receive increased output. But the data tells a different story.

Instead of being a productivity wonderland, the office is more like a productivity black hole, where collaboration, socializing, mentoring, and on-the-job training thrive, but focused work gets sucked into oblivion. In fact, research shows that the office is detrimental to productivity.

For instance, a recent study by scholars at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Harvard University, and the University of Iowa found that software engineers located in different buildings on the same campus wrote more computer programs than those who were sitting close to colleagues. However, the engineers who worked in different buildings commented less on others’ code. In other words, they were more productive but that meant that less experienced coders got weaker mentorship.

To put it simply, expecting the office to boost productivity is like expecting a fish to ride a bicycle: The office serves a different, and very important purpose. The EY-Parthenon research shows a direct correlation between the forced return to the office and plummeting productivity. The numbers don’t lie. People are working longer hours and barely putting out more products. It’s high time we stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Structured mentoring can strike the balance between in-office and remote work
While productivity is harmed by in-office presence, mentoring is boosted. However, you have to be intentional about mentoring. The unspoken belief in many organizations is that if you pack employees into an office like sardines, mentoring will magically happen. However, office-based mentoring, especially full-time, is often inconsistent, inefficient, and dependent on factors like proximity, office politics, and personal dynamics, which can limit its reach and impact.

In contrast, a structured mentoring program offers a more intentional and effective approach, pairing mentors and mentees based on skills, interests, and goals. This targeted method ensures that knowledge sharing and personal growth are not left to chance, but rather strategically nurtured and cultivated.

Structured mentoring programs can thrive in a hybrid environment that combines the best aspects of both in-office and remote work. This balanced approach allows companies to limit in-office activities to necessary mentoring sessions, maximizing productivity and employee satisfaction without sacrificing the benefits of face-to-face interactions.

To leverage the advantages of both in-office and remote work in a structured mentoring program, companies can schedule targeted in-office sessions, use technology for remote mentoring, establish clear goals and expectations, encourage networking and collaboration, and monitor and evaluate progress.

The great irony of the office-centric mentality is that it’s not just productivity that suffers; employee engagement takes a hit, too. A Gallup study found that employees who could work remotely but are mandated to go to the office suffer from a lack of autonomy, leading to lower engagement. The research shows that employee engagement is lowest for those who could work remotely but are forced to show up in person full-time.

Imagine the global implications of this problem: Gallup estimated that low employee engagement cost the world a staggering $7.8 trillion in lost productivity last year. To put that into perspective, imagine every CEO taking a sledgehammer to their own company’s piggy bank, smashing it to pieces, and then wondering why profits are down.

The hidden roadblocks to productivity
Our decision-making is often influenced by cognitive biases that can distort our perception and judgment, especially when it comes to embracing flexible work. By understanding the impact of these biases, we can overcome the mental barriers that prevent effective mentoring and productivity.

Two specific cognitive biases play a significant role in this forced march to the office: status quo bias and functional fixedness.

Status quo bias leads individuals to prefer the current state of affairs and resist change, even when that change could lead to better outcomes. It can significantly impact the way CEOs and executives approach the idea of flexible work, causing them to cling to the traditional office-based work model.

The status quo bias can make it difficult for leaders to recognize the benefits of flexible work and hybrid mentoring programs, as they may unconsciously perceive these changes as threats to the established order. As a result, they may overlook the evidence that supports the effectiveness of remote work and structured mentoring, instead opting to maintain the familiar office environment.

Functional fixedness prevents individuals from seeing alternative uses or solutions for a particular problem, as they are fixated on the traditional or familiar approach. The functional fixedness bias can cause leaders to remain entrenched in the belief that the office is the only environment suitable for productivity.

It’s time for CEOs to abandon the sinking ship of forced in-office work and embrace the flexible work revolution. The office has its place for collaboration, mentoring, and training—but not for productivity.

Instead of forcing everyone into the same box, let’s tailor work arrangements to suit individual roles and preferences. It’s time to stop living in denial and acknowledge the truth: Flexible hybrid work is the future, and it’s here to stay. Embracing this reality is the only way to reverse the downward productivity spiral and unleash the true potential of the workforce.

The evidence is clear: A forced return to the office is not the solution to productivity woes, but rather the cause. As we’ve seen over the last five quarters, continuing to force employees back to the office is akin to bashing our heads against a brick wall and hoping for a different outcome. The time has come for CEOs to rethink their outdated assumptions and embrace the flexible work revolution.

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D. (a.k.a. “the office whisperer”) helps tech and finance industry executives drive collaboration, innovation, and retention in hybrid work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the bestselling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC–Chapel Hill and Ohio State.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

By Gleb Tsipursky


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