The Forced Return to Office is the Definition of Insanity

5 min read
Forced Return to Office

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 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.

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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 employee, 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: A Balanced Approach to 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. In reality, this haphazard approach is about as effective as throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks. 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: Plan focused in-person mentoring sessions or workshops that capitalize on the benefits of face-to-face interactions, while respecting employees’ need for remote work flexibility.
  • Utilize technology for remote mentoring: Video conferencing, instant messaging, and collaboration tools can facilitate communication and foster connections between mentors and mentees when in-person meetings are not required.
  • Establish clear goals and expectations: Setting specific objectives and milestones for the mentoring relationship will help both parties stay focused and accountable, maximizing the program’s impact.
  • Encourage networking and collaboration: Virtual and in-person workshops and forums can provide additional opportunities for knowledge sharing and relationship building, beyond the traditional one-on-one mentoring format.
  • Monitor and evaluate progress: By tracking the progress and success of mentoring relationships, companies can identify areas for improvement and refine their program over time, ensuring its ongoing effectiveness and impact.

Autonomy and Engagement: The Missing Ingredients

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.

Cognitive Biases: 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 hinder effective mentoring and productivity. In this context, let’s examine two specific cognitive biases that play a significant role: status quo bias and functional fixedness.

Status quo bias is a cognitive bias that leads individuals to prefer the current state of affairs and resist change, even when that change could lead to better outcomes. This bias can significantly impact the way CEOs and executives approach the idea of flexible hybrid work and structured mentoring programs, 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 of opting to maintain the familiar office environment.

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that prevents individuals from seeing alternative uses or solutions for a particular problem, as they are fixated on the traditional or familiar approach. This bias can play a significant role in the way organizations approach workplace productivity, as they may be unable to envision the potential advantages of flexible work and structured hybrid mentoring programs.

The functional fixedness bias can cause leaders to remain entrenched in the belief that the office is the only environment suitable for productivity. Consequently, they may fail to recognize the potential of flexible work and hybrid mentoring programs, even when presented with compelling evidence.

Rethinking the Office: A New Way Forward

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 productivity is not one of them.

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, hoping for a different outcome. The time has come for CEOs to rethink their outdated assumptions and embrace the flexible hybrid work revolution.

Key Take-Away

Embracing flexible hybrid work and structured mentoring programs is the key to increasing productivity and employee satisfaction, while abandoning the outdated and ineffective practice of forcing employees back to the office. Click To Tweet

Image credit: Ivan Samkov/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 https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/newsletter/.