Aug. 6, 2022, 11:00 a.m. ET
By Edith Cooper
Ms. Cooper is a co-founder of Medley, a membership-based community for leadership development, and a former executive at Goldman Sachs.
In the conversation about returning to in-person office work, it sometimes seems like bosses and workers are operating in different realities.
Many young workers on the first few rungs of their career ladder do not see offices as welcoming places, buzzing with collaboration and mentorship, despite what their bosses promise.
Meanwhile, many senior executives are mystified by calls for change to office systems and cultures that, from where they sat, looked like they were working just fine.
They weren’t. The pandemic showed a realistic alternative to the daily commute to the office, and now many workers aren’t willing to go back to the status quo. Some two-thirds of those who have worked remotely during the pandemic do not want to return to the office, according to a survey conducted by the jobs platform FlexJobs last year. A large survey taken in November 2021 of workers in 17 countries found that 71 percent of 18- to-24-year-olds said that “if my employer insisted on me returning to my workplace full-time, I would consider looking for another job.” And they can, for the moment at least, do just that: In a tight labor market, research suggests that recent college graduates have high expectations of their first jobs, including work flexibility and alignment with their employers’ mission and values.
There are around 125 million full-time jobs in America, and researchers at Gallup say that half of these jobs — mostly office or “white collar” jobs — can be done remotely. But corporate leaders still seem to put a premium on “face time” in the office. Elon Musk recently told his employees at Tesla and SpaceX that he expects them to spend at least 40 hours per week in the office.
Even if they’re not announcing mandates, many companies are offering incentives and perks, leaving workers with the distinct impression that working from home is frowned upon. Apple’s plans to bring workers back to its campus part-time haven’t gone over well, with some employees demanding in an open letter that the tech company “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.”
Part of the problem is that the collegial, purpose-driven office that senior leaders idealize feels like a myth to many young workers. Since long before Covid-19, most offices weren’t delivering the mentoring, collaboration and social fabric that makes in-person work feel worthwhile. Indeed, many of the offices I visited in recent years were desolate, open plan landscapes dotted with individuals staring at screens, headphones on.
When I was the head of Goldman Sachs’ human resources team, a new hire — a young woman of color — asked me, “Can I bring my whole self to work?” It’s not a question my generation would have asked, but it’s a fair and increasingly common one. Work culture is 10 times as significant as compensation in predicting staff turnover, according to research published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. And culture problems can make those who are marginalized less eager to be in the office: In survey after survey, women and Black workers say they prefer hybrid or remote working at higher rates than white men.
Despite all this, I want young people to return — at least some of the time — to offices. I hope they won’t underestimate the value of actually being in a room with co-workers: the shared experience, the serendipity of talking to people not directly related to what you do; the exposure to a diversity of ideas and perspectives; the chance to look up and say, “I never thought about that.” I hope they won’t give up on the office before engaging fully in trying to create a better version of it.
Americans often spend a third to more than half of their waking hours working, so work is inevitably where many of our bonds and friendships are formed. The old way of mixing business with pleasure had its problems — golf, after-work drinks and other forced “fun” activities aren’t for everyone, especially parents or those who don’t drink alcohol. But there are ways to get to know colleagues that feel more progressive — from shared meals to book clubs, to simply grabbing a coffee or going for a walk with a colleague during the workday.
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I know that if I had stayed home early in my career, I would have missed out on finding the friends and mentors who played critical roles in my life. The office was also where I figured out how my industry works, the nature of power hierarchies and how to get along with all kinds of people.
Staying home might seem easier for workers who, for one reason or another, don’t feel comfortable at the office, but it can also let employers off the hook when it comes to making the office more inclusive. If the social movements of the past few years have told us anything, it’s that showing up and speaking up about what isn’t working can bring meaningful change.
Company leaders have plenty to learn, too. My advice to them is to listen to their employees, and learn from workers at all stages of their careers and lives what they need to do their best work. They also must learn to trust their employees, and to grant them more autonomy and control over how they get their work done. They would do well to remember that when the pandemic forced many people to work from home, their employees largely remained committed and productive.
Inclusivity needs to be intentional. Hybrid models should not create new hierarchies that place a premium on in-person face time, and companies must create working experiences that give people real reasons to commute. Those might include meaningful opportunities to socialize and celebrate wins, well-designed facilities and a welcoming work culture. Some companies are experimenting with ways to reshape the office experience for the hybrid era, creating new systems for meetings that don’t exclude remote workers, or even looking into installing video conferencing screens in office kitchens to allow those working from home to engage in small talk and “water cooler chats.”
I can’t remember exactly how I answered that new hire at Goldman who asked about bringing her “whole self” to work, but since then I have had to answer versions of that question many more times. Now I make this plea to you, young office workers: Bring your whole self back to the office. Don’t come back for your boss; come back for yourself. Embrace what you like, work to change what you don’t, and help create a workplace that’s truly rewarding and supportive.
Edith Cooper (@Edithwcooper) is a co-founder of Medley, a membership-based community for leadership development, and a former executive at Goldman Sachs. She serves on the boards of Amazon and PepsiCo.
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