Bosses Push Back on WFH Die-Hards: ‘They Will Need to Show Up’

WFH Jammies
WFH Jammies

Summary

  • Managers say team productivity has taken a hit as employees stay remote

Office attendance is slumping again and bosses have a warning: We are a worse company when you stay home.

In buildings across 10 major U.S. cities, office occupancy has fallen back below 50% for the past three weeks, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security swipes into offices. The drop comes despite new return-to-office mandates that affect more than 600,000 workers and counting.

Hundreds of Wall Street Journal readers—many of them bosses and team leaders—responded to our story on the workers who say “it’s not my responsibility" to save the office economy. These bosses say employees who insist they are more productive while working from home are missing the larger picture: Team productivity is taking a hit.

The purpose of an office is to create a dynamic environment where people feed off one another’s energy, bond on a personal level and explore ideas in unstructured ways, many company leaders said. Remote work can’t provide those kinds of casual interactions that build culture and camaraderie, they say, which means it is worse for the organization and, in many cases, individual careers, too.

“Team collaboration really is much better and more effective with actual face time. Career growth also," said William McNamara, a hiring manager who lives in Bellevue, Wash. “Sure, zealots will claim you can do it all remotely, but you can’t do it all as effectively for everyone, remotely."

Still, work-life balance is a vital piece of company culture—one that workers say is helped by the option to work from home, at least part of the time. That leaves bosses to strike a difficult balance, something they are more keenly aware of than their employees might realize.

“We are stuck. Remote work means remote engagement. In-office means less flexibility," said John Hayes, founder of Blackney Hayes Architects, a Philadelphia-based firm.

Eavesdropping as education

Bosses say that developing young workers and new hires is a priority, and that it’s tougher and slower to accomplish it when people aren’t gathered together in offices. Structured training sessions can often be conducted via Zoom, but the daily rhythms of mentoring and learning on the job require a less-structured exchange of questions and answers that happen organically.

“Eavesdropping is a huge form of education," Hayes said. “Hearing what other people are saying, how they’re dealing with problems."

Blackney Hayes asks employees to do their jobs from the office at least two days a week, but doesn’t mandate the face time because so many workers have said they prize flexibility.

“If leadership and all the energy radiate from the office, then people will understand that if they want to be part of the team they will need to show up," Hayes said.

Jenny von Podewils, co-chief executive of Leapsome, an HR productivity and engagement platform, has taken a similar approach in the hopes of boosting young workers’ professionalism, such as appropriate conversations with colleagues and how to present in client meetings. Without office time, newer staff members take longer to get up to speed—if they catch up at all.

“Learning doesn’t happen on Zoom calls. It happens during meetings, together, through body language, listening to how people approach certain situations," she said.

Breakthrough problem-solving

Ad-hoc interactions are important for seasoned employees, too, said Kevin Kowalczuk, a technology product manager based in Franklin, Tenn., who retired in April.

“We could literally make progress on a task while waiting for our coffee cup to fill up or while we heated lunch in the microwave," he said of his return to the office.

Kowalczuk resolved one of his tougher challenges while chatting with colleagues in the company kitchen last spring. After discussing the housing market, their conversation turned to a new application that was only loading for some users despite being released to hundreds. The group quickly determined the problem stemmed from incorrect group permissions being granted to the users.

“That saved us days of time," Kowalczuk said.

Team productivity vs. individual output

Individual contributors with task-oriented roles and a clear to-do list can perform satisfactorily in a remote setting in a way that doesn’t work for more strategic roles, said Edward Boggs, an information-technology team lead who lives in Durham, N.C., and goes in five days a week.

“If the tasks they are receiving are of the ‘figure it out’ variety, they often don’t do a very good job, or it takes them much longer than it should," he said. The critical thinking required for those jobs usually requires a team working through issues in real time, Boggs added.

Working from home introduces other performance-related issues, even for conscientious employees with the best intentions, said Kim McClung, a former vice president of clinic operations for a large medical group, who’s now retired.

Managers who reported to McClung struggled to step back from work. They answered emails and took calls after hours, a habit she said she tried to discourage because it leads to burnout.

“If you’re in the car driving or trying to watch your kid’s recital while you’re answering emails, you’re not giving your best to anyone," she said. “I don’t want your attention under those circumstances."

McClung would rather her team work shorter hours together in the office, 100% focused on work, then go home and have true downtime.

When people are “on 24/7, the quality of work is going to suffer," she said.

Write to Gretchen Tarrant at gretchen.tarrant@wsj.com

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