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Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 2/5/24

February 5, 2024 Dr. Jayne 9 Comments

I was invited last week to an onsite meeting at the local office of a national company, where a “return to work” policy had recently been enacted. Employees are expected to be in the office at least three days per week if they live within a certain radius of an office, regardless of whether their teams are located in that office or not.

One of the attendees was grumbling about the fact that he is the only member of his team that works in this market, so he essentially drives to the office and sits in a cube, where he attends video conferences most of the day. He mentioned that despite the policy, he’s often the only person in his part of the office, which doesn’t do a lot for building employee morale or enabling the growth of the company’s culture.

I was interested to see all the amenities in the building, which included a nice-looking cafeteria and an area that could be configured with courts for indoor sports and lawn-style games. I suspect that they pre-date the era of remote work, when everyone was in the office and people weren’t coming back in a fragmented way.

Given the fact that for this company, proximity to an office determines the need to return to in-person work instead of being part of a specific team or holding a specific job role, it’s no wonder that people are not thrilled about the return to work policy. It will be interesting to follow up in a few months to see whether more people are embracing in-office culture or whether it’s just causing more bitterness. Expecting people to collaborate in an office where there aren’t any team members simply makes no sense.

Having worked in environments that are in-person, completely remote, and various combinations in between, I’ve seen how company culture is governed more by people’s behaviors than by whether they’re interacting in person or online. For example, in remote environments, particularly when people are working in multiple time zones, it can be easy to overlook people’s posted work hours and schedule meetings that are too early or too late for them. I’ve had to do that on occasion, but try to only do it when there’s an external constraint, like physician attendees who work from one of the coasts and need to accommodate clinic hours, or something like that. I always reach out to the impacted people rather than just sending the appointment, so that people know it’s coming and can let me know if they can attend the meeting or whether we need to make other arrangements. Using that approach, most people are willing to adjust their schedules to accommodate an early or late meeting, but it’s the fact that you discuss it that helps build rapport, teamwork, and by extension, company culture.

Whether in-person or remote, it’s also important to have a culture where people can put focus time or work blocks on their schedules and have those times be respected. Those blocks need to be created in a way that respects existing standing meetings or important team meetings, but no one should ever be made to feel bad that they want time during their scheduled workday during to actually do their work. Remote employees often struggle with failing to achieve work-life balance because they are always at their workplace, and creating an expectation for them to spend time after-work hours playing catch-up due to overly full schedules isn’t a culture builder.

It was interesting timing to have this meeting since several articles about the topic were published this week. Gizmodo had a headline offering “There’s More Proof That Return to Office is Pointless,” highlighting a study from the University of Pittsburgh that demonstrated that return to office policies don’t positively affect productivity. Researchers looked at a sample of S&P 500 companies and concluded that such policies were more about corporate control than stock performance. They found negative correlations between returning to the office and key indicators such as employee satisfaction, ratings of work-life balance, and opinions of senior management.

Companies allege that returning to the office builds trust, but I have found that trust is best built, regardless of work location, by doing things such as giving employees the resources they need, ensuring that employees have adequate time away from work (such as uninterrupted lunch breaks), not requiring employees to have their cameras on 100% of the time, and assuming positive intent when employees seem to be asking a lot of questions.

Another colleague I talked to is convinced that her company’s return to office policy is a play to make good on bad real estate decisions that were made when people failed to realize the impact of remote work during 2020, 2021, and 2022, when others modified their leases due to the impact of the COVID pandemic. One of the companies I worked with in 2020 saw the proverbial handwriting on the wall and made the decision to unload countless square feet of real estate. They made it clear that they wouldn’t be going back to in-person work, and unsurprisingly, employee satisfaction continues to be high and turnover numbers are smaller than they have ever been.

Fast Company also had an article on the topic that highlighted results from a recent survey that indicated that half of potential employees wouldn’t even apply to a job if it was entirely in-person. Flexible work can be a tremendous asset for neurodivergent employees or those with disabilities, chronic medical conditions, or high commuting costs. There’s also the issue of environmentalism and the potential to reduce carbon emissions when fewer people are driving to a physical office.

I’m not saying that allowing employees to work remotely is all sunshine and lollipops. I’m wondering if some of the movement towards return to office policies has to do with declining professionalism. I’m sure many of us working remotely have done the “business on the top, pajamas on the bottom” wardrobe look and that’s OK. The people I work with regularly either have tidy home offices or use electronic backgrounds, although I do get distracted by those that have animations such as rain or snow on the windows.

However, in attending meetings for professional organizations and committees, I see a lot of people whose home lives have become part of their work lives, including interruptions from children and pets. Life happens, but when your kids are wandering in and out of your call, there’s always the option to turn off your camera, make an apology for the disruption, or even step away.

There’s also evidence that virtual meetings aren’t being done optimally, causing employees to become fatigued and inattentive on calls. Researchers looked at employee engagement during calls, along with physiological measurements, over two working days, encompassing nearly 400 meetings. They cross-referenced their data with questionnaires about work attitude and engagement, finding that fatigue during calls is due to mental underload and boredom in the workplace. They found that disengaged employees have a harder time maintaining focus in meetings where cameras are off, leading to multitasking behaviors and further distraction. They mentioned that highly automated and non-cognitive tasks such as walking can be carried out during meetings, and I suspect that extends to the knitting and crochet that I see some of my physician co-workers doing during committee meetings.

I know of a number of hospitals and health systems that allow technology workers to live anywhere in the US, even though their patient care sites aren’t nationwide. It would be interesting to specifically compare their outcomes to those that require workers to do the same jobs in person that others do remotely. Only time will tell whether organizations will back off on their return to office mandates.

Have you recently been subject to a return to office policy? If so, how is it going? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

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Currently there are "9 comments" on this Article:

  1. Just a couple of comments:
    – The conversatin needs to include sensitivity to workers whose duties can only be done onsite – doctors and nusrses mainly, irrespective of virtual care opportunities. Remote workers must be sensitive and accommodaitng of the onsite workers. A nurse leader who has stepped away from rounding with staff and possibly patients may not be impressed by a barking dog in the background, etc..
    – Virtual meetings should begin on time, and end on time. The host should be disciplined to active the meeting no later than the assigned start, not a few minutes later. In person meetings can tolerate a litlle tardiness as they exchange pleasantries with colleagues and perhaps do a little business during the delay. With virtual meetings, staring at a blank screen for a few minutes doesn’t imporve the bonding among colleagues.

    • In my experience, the opposite is true.

      Virtual meetings seem to routinely wait for a notional quorum, or the arrival of all the key actors/participants. During that time, we catch up, on literally anything. Sports, culture, the weather, organizational happenings. It actually is a bonding experience, and seems to replicate the old ‘water cooler’ time and place.

      The one thing I would agree with, is to place a time limit on such activities. My personal benchmark is 5 minutes. Stragglers get 5 minutes, then the meeting either goes ahead or gets cancelled.

      It seems to work, and work well.

  2. My employer also mandated a part-time return to office policy (based on proximity to the office) at the beginning of the year, in the name of “preserving the culture.” As I sat alone in the office last week, I pondered what culture I was supposed to be preserving. There was no one within 300′ of me, so the only culture being preserved was my gut biome, courtesy of my Activia yogurt.

    I was hired into a fully remote position, which the company bippity-boppity-boo’ed into a hybrid position, with little to no explanation as to the rationale. The explanation we did get was so riddled with corporate buzzwords (“balance the needs of our clients, employees, communities, and culture”) that the rationale was lost.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out over time, and whether the company is able to maintain that remote workers are just as valuable as those who work in the office.

  3. I am a proponent of a hybrid model where employees go into an office when it makes sense and work remotely when it doesn’t. Companies can still save on office space by reducing square footage. I do believe that face-to face interaction is important on occasion. In addition to the collaboration benefits, the social aspects of bonding with colleagues is valuable. It builds trust and shared experiences.

    During the pandemic our company had most employees work remotely. As a result, they ultimately closed a number of office locations. After the pandemic, the decision was to continue a remote work model. Many new employees were hired, but never met any of their colleagues face-to-face. In the past, there was a strong corporate culture because employees had a shared experience and direct contact. Now, there is little direct contact and the culture has suffered.

  4. My company went from fully remote during the pandemic to a hybrid about a year ago. Except for the people that didn’t get the Covid vaccine for religious reasons, they still get to by fully remote. Nice reward for what most of us in healthcare believe to be the wrong action.

  5. Hi, Dr. Jayne,

    I agree that work culture has a major effect on the way people feel, and it can positively or negatively impact their overall job satisfaction. Working at home for a company that doesn’t appreciate you is little different than working for them in person. The opposite is true, too. Appreciation, respect, and consideration can be fostered online, you just need to be more intentional. The point is we can all get hyper-focused on a project and zone out those around us. The key to comradery is to be aware of that and reach out to your co-workers on purpose. Set a reminder if you need to.

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