The Collaboration Myth: Decoding the True Value of RTO

6 min read

Is your office a melting pot of collaborative ideas or a source of conflict and anger? This provocative question lies at the heart of a growing corporate rethink around the return to office. And the answers might determine the future of the corporate office and work from home.

The Driving Force Behind the Perceived Value of RTO: A Quest for Collaboration

In the modern business landscape, the push to return to office environments is primarily driven by a desire to rekindle the essence of collaboration and community among teams. This trend, deeply rooted in the belief that in-person interactions hold a special value, has driven RTO across various industries.

A report by VTS, which analyzed responses from over 400 business leaders, strongly highlights this movement. The foremost reason for encouraging a return to the office, named by 36% of respondents, involved the pursuit of in-person collaboration and the fostering of a sense of community. Similarly, the Eptura Workplace Index, which encompassed analysis of over 2.6 million desks at more than 8,000 companies and included responses from 6,714 employees, found that when asked what they appreciate most about going to the office, senior managers and middle managers both rank collaborating with colleagues as the highest benefit.

From my own experiences as a consultant helping companies navigate their strategies for returning to the office, I’ve observed this belief first-hand. The clients I’ve worked with consistently express a common theme: there is an undeniable “magic” in physical interactions that simply cannot be duplicated through virtual platforms. Whether it’s the spontaneous exchange of ideas over a coffee break or the dynamic brainstorming sessions in conference rooms, these in-person experiences are seen as vital for nurturing creativity and building strong, cohesive teams.

This collective belief has a strong basis; it’s one I generally share and support, talking it up with my clients. Studies have long pointed to the benefits of physical presence in fostering trust, understanding, and a shared sense of purpose among team members. It’s about the nuances of non-verbal communication, the energy of a shared space, and the serendipitous moments of collaboration that often lead to breakthroughs and innovations.

The Reality Check Around the Value of RTO: Conflict Amidst Collaboration

Unfortunately, the journey back to the office, envisioned as a path to enhanced collaboration, has unfolded with its own set of complexities. While the anticipated increase in collaborative efforts has materialized, it has brought along an unexpected companion: conflict. This reality, emerging in various forms and intensities, suggests that the dynamics of in-office work involve more than just the facilitation of teamwork; they also encompass the challenge of navigating interpersonal issues that are less prevalent in remote settings.

In my professional capacity, I’ve witnessed this phenomenon across different organizations. My clients, eager to re-establish the office as a hub of collaboration, have found themselves addressing an uptick in conflicts among team members. These issues range from simple misunderstandings to more deep-seated disagreements, highlighting the intricacies of human interactions in a shared physical space.

To gauge the extent of this issue beyond my immediate professional circle, I conducted a survey on LinkedIn, targeting a diverse group of professionals. The findings were revealing: out of 302 respondents, a significant 57% reported experiencing more people-related issues while working in the office. In contrast, only 12% indicated a higher occurrence of such issues while working remotely. Additionally, 31% of the voters observed no notable difference in the frequency of people issues between the two settings.

These statistics underscore a critical insight: the return to the office isn’t merely a logistical change but also a cultural and social transition. The shift from remote to in-person work environments re-introduces elements of office dynamics that were largely absent in virtual settings. These include navigating different personalities in close proximity, managing in-person conflicts, and dealing with the day-to-day nuances of office politics and social interactions.

The increased rate of conflicts and people issues in the office setting, as evidenced by my experiences and the survey results, points to the need for a deeper understanding and proactive management of workplace dynamics. It suggests that while physical co-location can indeed foster collaboration, it also requires a renewed focus on communication skills, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence. Organizations must recognize and address these challenges to harness the full potential of in-person collaboration while maintaining a harmonious and productive work environment.

Adapting to New Norms: The Need for Etiquette Training

To address these challenges among our clients, we introduced training programs focused on in-office collaboration norms and etiquette for the staff of our client organizations. This initiative aimed at equipping employees with the skills and understanding necessary to navigate the nuanced dynamics of physical workspace interactions.

Apparently, the problems my clients encountered happened extensively at other companies as well. No wonder that a comprehensive survey conducted by, involving 1,548 business leaders, revealed a similar trend across the corporate landscape. The study found that 45% of companies have already launched etiquette classes, and an additional 18% plan to implement such training in the next year. The response to these classes has been overwhelmingly positive, with two-thirds of the organizations currently offering them reporting high levels of success.

You might think that only younger segments of the workforce who spent little time in the office after graduating from college require such training. However, that’s not what my clients found: we needed to give training to everyone. The same story emerged from the survey: only 10% of the companies planning or currently offering these classes targeted exclusively Gen Z and new college graduates. Instead, 60% of these companies have recognized the importance of such training for their entire employee base, regardless of age or experience level. This inclusive approach reflects a growing understanding that improving in-office communication and collaboration skills, while reducing conflicts, represents a serious challenge for all members of a modern workplace, not just those entering the professional world.

The implementation of etiquette training in response to the return to the office signifies a broader recognition within the corporate world: the skills required for successful in-person collaboration have evolved. Or at least, that everyone grew rusty in such skills during the enforced remote work period. As the nature of work continues to transform, these training programs will increasingly become essential tools for organizations to ensure their teams can interact productively and harmoniously in a shared physical environment. They represent a proactive step towards fostering a workplace culture that values respect, understanding, and effective communication, thereby enhancing overall collaboration and productivity.

Addressing Diversity and Inclusion Challenges

A particular concern for several of my client organizations involved notable challenges with complaints from minority employees. These complaints often centered around experiences of microaggressions, discrimination, and a general sense of exclusion within the office environment. Such issues, unfortunately, are not isolated incidents but are reflective of a broader trend observed widely during the return to office transitions.

We did anticipate some challenges given prior research. For instance, a study conducted by Future Forum before the widespread return to offices revealed a stark disparity in the preferences of Black knowledge workers compared to their white counterparts. Only 3% of Black knowledge workers expressed a desire to return to full-time on-site work, in stark contrast to 21% of white peers. The primary concerns for Black employees stemmed from apprehensions about microaggressions and discrimination, highlighting the concerns faced by minority groups in traditional office settings.

In response to these challenges, my approach with clients involved the revision of our training programs. These revisions aimed to address and mitigate instances of microaggressions and discrimination in the workplace in the context of hybrid work. The training encompassed various aspects, including awareness and recognition of microaggressions, understanding the impact of unconscious biases, and developing strategies for inclusive communication, balancing remote and in-office interactions. The goal? To create a culture celebrating diversity, and embedding inclusion in every aspect of the work environment. This involved encouraging open dialogue, promoting empathy, and giving all employees the tools and understanding necessary to contribute to a respectful and supportive office culture.

Rethinking the Value of RTO: Insights from Neuroscience

While dramatically improving outcomes, the training programs haven’t fully mitigated the reality of people issues. Thus, among my clients, there’s a growing trend of reassessing the amount of time employees spend in the office. This shift in thinking aligns with fascinating research conducted through a collaboration between Slalom’s HabLab and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Neuroscience Initiative. 

In an experiment, HabLab employees watched several videos while wearing brain-monitoring headsets. A key observation: employees who considered each other as close colleagues exhibited similar patterns of brain activity and shared comparable feelings about their work environment. Remarkably, the research found that these patterns of brain activity stayed consistent whether the employees interacted in person or virtually. According to Natalie Richardson, director of Slalom’s HabLab, “we proved through our research that you can create virtual friendships that are just as strong in the brain as in-person friendships.” This statement holds significant promise for organizations navigating the complexities of hybrid and remote work environments. It challenges the conventional wisdom that strong, meaningful workplace relationships require physical presence.

The researchers also shed light on the impact of seemingly minor adjustments in a virtual work setting. HabLab employees got brain-monitoring headsets to wear during their workday. The study focused on two scenarios: days with back-to-back meetings lasting 30 minutes or longer, and days when employees had the option to take at least a 10-minute break between meetings. The results: significantly higher brain activity signals associated with lower stress levels and enhanced creative thinking on days when employees took regular breaks. This insight underscores the importance of structuring the virtual workday to include breaks, enhancing both employee well-being and productivity.

Another study, a collaboration between Jabra and the London School of Economics’ Behavioural Lab, delved into the impact of technology on the quality of remote meetings. According to Paul Sephton, Jabra’s Head of Brand Communications, the research revealed that the use of professional headsets and web cameras by remote participants significantly enhanced the perceived quality of meetings. Notably, remote users experienced a 22% increase in trust levels for other remote participants using similar professional equipment. Furthermore, in-person participants in hybrid meetings rated remote participants as 32% more expressive and contributing 25% higher quality input when using professional equipment. The study also highlighted that in-room participants rated remote participants using professional audio and video technology as having nearly twice the level of engagement (84%) compared to those remote participants using standard laptop hardware. Additionally, when both in-room and remote participants used professional technology, remote participants reported a 56% increase in the quality of input from those in the meeting room, along with an 11% higher trust rating.

These findings point to a clear conclusion: the key to successful remote collaboration lies in the strategic use of technology and the adoption of effective virtual work practices. By investing in professional-grade technology and being mindful of the structure and pacing of virtual interactions, organizations can significantly enhance the effectiveness and satisfaction of remote collaboration. This approach not only improves the quality of communication and teamwork but also fosters a more trusting and productive virtual work environment.

That doesn’t mean that offices have no use case for virtual work. While most of my clients adopted a hybrid-first model, two chose a virtual-first model. Still, even these clients provide office spaces for teams who want to get together occasionally for team bonding and strategic discussions. 

Research bears out these benefits. For example, Atlassian – a virtual-first company – has a few offices around the world, and encourages teams to meet there several times a year, focusing on team building and bonding. Their research finds that such gatherings boost team connection by 27%, with this boost lasting 4-5 months. On average, new hires get the biggest boost in team connection after an in-person gathering. This data aligns with similar findings from my other clients. 


In light of these findings, along with the challenges of in-person conflicts, some of my clients have revised or are revising their initial return to office policies. They are more inclined to follow my advice of adopting more flexible approaches that acknowledge the potential for strong team dynamics and collaborations to develop and thrive in virtual settings. In advising my clients, I emphasize the importance of leveraging the strengths of both in-person and remote work environments. For instance, allowing employees to choose their work location based on the nature of their tasks or their personal work style can lead to improved job satisfaction and productivity. Teams that require intensive collaboration sessions benefit from occasional in-person meetings, even at the risk of more interpersonal conflicts, while tasks requiring deep concentration can be more effectively handled in a remote setting. Moreover, this revised approach also includes investing in the right technology and training to support both effective remote work and successful in-person collaboration. By adopting this approach, my clients are positioning themselves to harness the full potential of their teams in a way that aligns with the realities of the contemporary professional landscape.

Key Take-Away

The true value of RTO lies not just in physical presence but in fostering effective collaboration. While conflicts may arise, embracing a flexible approach that leverages technology and training can optimize teamwork, regardless of location. Click To Tweet

Image credit: Darlene Alderson/pexels

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio. In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at