Ask executives why they’re desperate to get workers back in offices, and productivity—the corporate north star and initial obsession of pandemic anxiety—suddenly has nothing to do with it. Many sound like Judith Carr-Rodriguez, the chief executive officer of FIG, a New York City-based advertising firm. She was shocked at how well things went when her staff of 80 pivoted to remote work; the firm actually grew. Yet, she’s resisting a fully remote future because of the je ne sais quoi of the office. “I know people are being productive,” she says. “But are they learning, growing, being challenged? I worry we’re creating a culture where people are not exposing themselves in ways they would be in the office.”
We know by now that people were wildly productive during Covid lockdowns. A Goldman Sachs Group Inc. survey from July found that worker output per hour rose 3.1% in 2020, more than double the growth rate of the previous business cycle. Yet bosses have been pushing hard for in-person work ever since, well, it didn’t seem in poor taste to. Multiple heads of the biggest U.S. banks, have, in so many words, called working-from-home the dumbest idea they’ve ever heard. Sure new Covid-19 variants have upended their short-term plans, but eventually they want butts in seats, at least some of the time. In a June survey of 1,000 human resource professionals, fewer than 10% said their employers plan to operate fully remote long term.