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In-person collaboration has been linked to high performance and job satisfaction, but these benefits don’t increase with more days spent in the office.

An oft-cited reason for in-person work mandates is that they help drive connection among a team. As more employers push for four and five days in the office, rhetoric has focused on the importance of collaboration and a sense of belonging that some leaders believe can only be fostered in a shared physical environment.

Yet some data shows the number of days people attend the office doesn’t directly correlate to that sense of connection. In fact, there’s only a 1% difference in the number of employees who say they feel connected to their organisation working four or five days a week as compared to those working two or three days on site. That slim leading edge went to the latter group, at 60%, according to a global survey of 1,115 employees by London-based workplace insights firm Leesman, seen by the BBC.

“There just doesn’t seem to be huge gains from the number of days people are in the office,” says Allison English, deputy CEO of Leesman. “It’s about the quality, not quantity, of time that matters. In fact, we see that the greater the number of in-person days, the less the worker is generally satisfied with work-life balance, impacting engagement and their connection to the organisation.”

There is evidence that a blend of autonomy and two-to-three in-person days a week fosters employee engagement and workplace connections. Data from Gallup found that one-in-five surveyed US workers say they have a “best friend” at work. And in a meta-analysis of more than 100,000 workplaces around the world, Gallup found that these close employee relationships contribute to higher performance and lower turnover.

However, as office occupancy rates rise, and more high-profile firms end working from home, English says leaders may turn to fixed mandates because of their relative simplicity. “Bosses have thousands of other worries than whether someone is working productively from home – they find it easier to manage top-down and lead by sight. Then, in a slower economy, leaders don’t want to spend time figuring out a different, more complex way of working – especially when many prefer full-time office patterns and fully utilising their corporate real estate, anyway.”

Getty Images An employee may feel connected to their organisation while only attending the office occasionally (Credit: Getty Images)
An employee may feel connected to their organisation while only attending the office occasionally (Credit: Getty Images)

In many cases, mandated days fail to account for the natural rhythm of employees’ workweeks, says English, creating a disconnect between leadership and workers. “Sometimes, employees just need heads-down focused time working from home, then have the office as a place to occasionally connect with teams – rather than the employer stipulating which days to do what.”

As more bosses mandate more office days, workers are spending much of their in-person workdays behind computer screens in workplaces ill-equipped for the hybrid age, rather than actually connecting with colleagues, says English. “Many employees have roles that can usually be done remotely most of the time. More in-person days means this focused time has to be done in busy offices that lack meeting booths, and workdays spent on virtual calls in settings often worse than the privacy of their own home.”

Quality in-person time is further hampered by the prospect of “busywork”, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London: employees spend office days looking occupied in front of suspecting managers who aren’t equipped to lead their teams in a hybrid way, and presume workers are more productive in sight. “The problem is lack of trust and an inability to measure output on the side of the manager, which causes a lack of engagement and productivity on the side of the employee.”

In a slower economy, leaders don’t want to spend time figuring out a different, more complex way of working – Allison English

Conversely, an employee may feel connected to their organisation attending the office occasionally, says Chamorro-Premuzic, because they’re more likely to feel trusted and able to spend their in-person days collaborating. “People tend to like more freedom and flexibility. And most work for a knowledge worker is in front of a computer screen anyway, with organisational ‘culture’ often transmitted via digital means, such as Zoom, Slack and email. So, going to the office once or twice a week complements this digital culture with analogue interactions.”

Over time, unless bosses plan in-person days with greater effort, thought and coordination, says English, workers may find more accommodating employers that do. “If employees are micromanaged and treated like children, they’ll have a lasting sense of frustration – the best ones will find new roles that are more flexible, with more middling employees unhappily complying with strict mandates.” 

The implication is that the more employers demand workers back to the office to create connection, the more they might actually drive disconnection. 

“The office has the opportunity to be an incredibly strong connector as the physical manifestation of a company, a tool so that everyone paddles with the same cadence headed to the same destination,” says English. “But without some flexibility, the risk is that organisations will be left with more people coasting: content to just sit on the boat and simply ride the waves.”

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