Why You’ll Probably Return to the Office – Even if You Don’t Want to

Daniel Davis – 29 April 2021

Take it from me, someone that was working remotely before the pandemic: in all likelihood, you’re going back to the office.

Now I know that remote work feels like it’s here to stay. I’ve read the headlines. Office real estate is getting crushed. Buildings are empty. Employees are more productive at home. People are moving. 

But I’d be careful about reading too much into the current situation. Remote working is currently the only safe option. It has no competition. The real test will come when it’s possible to return to the office. Will everyone touting the benefits of remote work hold the line and continue to work remotely? Or will offices reclaim their gravity and pull people back? My money is on offices pulling people back, but not because they’re necessarily better places to work. Let me explain! 


Pandemic remote ≠ regular remote

Before we jump into this, I want to clarify that I don’t hate remote working. I’ve been working remotely for a couple of years, and I love it. I love having a space to focus without interruption. I love regaining an hour otherwise spent on the subway. And I love not worrying about booking meeting rooms.

That’s not to say that remote work isn’t without it’s challenges. Before the pandemic, most of my colleagues worked from offices, and I was a rare employee in the company working remotely. When I called into a meeting, I was often the lone voice on a speakerphone while everyone else met in person. It was hard. Voices echoed and faded away. Pre-meeting banter passed me by. And I often couldn’t see the room, let alone read it.

That feeling of distance changed during the pandemic. My colleagues, the ones that typically work from an office, suddenly found themselves working from home. It was a struggle for them initially. They were learning a new way of working, often while juggling children and spouses and the mental burden of the pandemic. They’d ask me how I was doing, expecting me to commiserate with my own stories of working during the pandemic. But I’d have to confess that while the pandemic was a terrible thing, I was one of the fortunate few who was finding their job a little easier. Instead of being the lone voice on speakerphone, we were suddenly on an even footing – we were all dialing in from our bedrooms. And although we were more distant and isolated than ever, I somehow felt closer.

It was an important lesson: there is something fundamentally different about working remotely when others are doing the same (as many of us did during the pandemic) compared to working remotely in a hybrid situation when others are in offices (as I did before the pandemic and as many of us will do after the pandemic).

The hybrid dilemma

The hybrid situation is the key to understanding why people are likely to return to the office. To explain its importance, consider the story of the prisoner’s dilemma. You’re probably familiar with this story. In short, there are two prisoners in jail. They’re isolated and unable to coordinate with each other. A police officer gives them the chance to confess or stay silent. If they both remain silent, they’ll each spend a year in prison. If they both confess, they’ll get two years. Clearly, they should stay silent.

The dilemma is that the police officer gives them a third option, a hybrid: if one prisoner confesses and the other stays silent, the person who confesses will walk free while the other gets three years. Collectively, it’s still better for them to remain silent, but if they’re playing as individuals, it’s actually wiser for each of them to confess*. This thought experiment can be applied to many circumstances to explain why a group of people may end up doing something that seems against their collective best interest. 

Apply this to the workplace. Imagine for a second that people working remotely are happier and more productive than people working from an office (I know this isn’t always the case, but we’ll leave that aside momentarily). In this scenario, it would seem that working remotely is always better than working from an office.

Of course, the real world is a bit more complicated. Research from Leesman shows that while most employees have enjoyed working from home, this isn’t true for everyone. Some people don’t have a dedicated workspace in their house, or they lack fast internet, or their work can’t be done remotely, or their company’s office is just much better than their work environment at home. Whatever the case, the individual context matters. Even if remote work is better on average, there will still be people for whom this isn’t true – there will still be people who want to return to the office. 

Now things get interesting. If some employees or companies return to the office, we’ve got a hybrid scenario. In this hybrid situation ask yourself: where would you’d rather be?

In the book ‘Remote‘ (2013) by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, two staunch advocates of remote working, they warn that remote working in a hybrid situation is challenging. They say: 

Feeling like a second-class worker doesn’t take much. Case in point: a roomful of local people and a shitty intercom system that makes it hard for the remote worker to hear what’s going on and even harder to participate. There’s also the annoyance of having every debate end with “John and I talked about this in the office yesterday and decided that your idea isn’t going to work.” Fuck that.

Given that remote working is so much more difficult in a hybrid scenario, many proponents of remote work consider it an all-or-nothing proposition – either go all-in with remote work or don’t bother. The consulting company McKinsey echoes this observation, noting that “history shows that mixing virtual and on-site working might be a lot harder than it looks.” They go on to say that usually, the in-person workers hold an advantage over the remote workers: 

Our experience—and the experience at HP, IBM, and Yahoo!—is that the in-person culture comes to dominate, disenfranchising those who are working remotely. The difficulty arises through a thousand small occurrences: when teams mishandle conference calls such that remote workers feel overlooked, and when collaborators use on-site white boards rather than online collaboration tools such as Miro. But culture can split apart in bigger ways too, as when the pattern of promotions favors on-site employees or when on-premises workers get the more highly sought-after assignments.

So again, ask yourself where you’d rather work in a hybrid situation? If you’re pitching to a client and some of your competitors are pitching in person, and some are pitching remotely, would you rather be giving your pitch in person or remote? If two people are up for promotion, would you rather be the remote worker or the in-person worker? If your company has a happy hour, would you rather attend in person or remotely? I could go on and on. The point is: in a hybrid scenario, it’s generally advantageous to be in-person (again, this isn’t universally true, just generally true). 

This takes us back to the prisoner’s dilemma. Let’s assume that employees are generally more happy and productive when working remotely. But let’s add the caveat that in a hybrid scenario it’s typically preferable to be in-person than remote. In this situation, collectively, it’s better for everyone to work remotely, but individually there is an incentive to return to the office.


A prediction or two

The key here is that the return to the office doesn’t necessarily come down to whether remote working is better or worse than in-person working. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. The thing that matters is this hybrid situation. In that situation, is it better to be remote or in-person?

That’s not to say that the hybrid model is impossible. It can work – I was doing it before the pandemic as were many others. I’m sure that coming out of the pandemic, many organizations will attempt to make remote and in-person working coexist. Some will undoubtedly pull it off. But I suspect these will be the exceptions rather than the rules. The cultures of remote work and in-person work are so different that it takes a cultural transformation to bring them together. Unfortunately, this type of cultural finesse isn’t a strength for many companies. So if I was to make some predictions:

  1. Many organizations will allow employees to choose whether they work remotely or in offices. Some organizations will make this hybrid model work, but most won’t undergo the necessary cultural transformation, resulting in companies where in-person work is favored. Accordingly, in-person working will again become the dominant mode of work, perhaps with a little more flexibility than we enjoyed prior to the pandemic.
  2. People will continue to be distracted by the question of whether remote work is better than in-person work. In reality, it is more important to ask how the hybrid scenario impacts people’s desire to return to the office. The hybrid model is the crux of whether people will return to the office or not.

Cover photo by Matej Rieciciar. For a counterpoint on how Prisoner’s Dilemma explains why remote work is here to stick, check out Dror Poleg’s article.