To return, or not to return: that is the question.
With apologies to The Bard of Avon for the opportunistic paraphrase of one of the greatest phrases in English language history, we are nonetheless, dealing with the single most consequential conundrum in memory regarding how and where we work. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room – and that beast is gaining weight.
Do we or do we not return to the office?
Late last year I wrote a piece about Apple’s CEO Tim Cook making it clear that the company’s work force (with some exceptions, of course) will be returning to the office, hopefully by June. “There’s no replacement,” said Cook, “for face-to-face collaboration.” Of late, Google has told employees that it is accelerating plans to get back in the office ahead of its September 1 deadline, and in a memo to all employees, Michael Bloomberg said he expects workers to return to the office as soon as they are vaccinated.
While some firms like JPMorgan Chase, Salesforce, and PWC are shedding office space, 70% of HR and finance executives plan to have their employees back in the office by this fall, according to a survey by LaSalle Network, a staffing firm. Expect that number to rise.
Here’s a question to ponder. If there are three companies on this whole planet capable of marshaling technology to successfully work in a remote setup, it would be (among others) Apple, Google, and Bloomberg. Why, then, are they returning to the office? Why are so many others doing the same?
The answer is: human nature. And human nature is not to be found in surveys, articles and TV spots on remote wizardry, or anything that deals with the “what” aspect of this. Nor is this a new issue. Go back as far in human history as you like – oh, to our hominid ancestors, for instance – and we see that they were not loners. They congregated, lived in clans, hunted in gangs, defended in battalions, shared communal chores, and even left evidence of all those things on cave paintings, just to make sure we knew it.
Millions of years of … progress?
Now fast forward a couple of million years to the 20th century – we’ll get to the 21st century later – and we come upon Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), the founder of modern social psychology. We know more about teams and comparative differences between teams from Lewin’s groundbreaking work than from that of anyone else. It’s important to note at this point that the technical capabilities we have to examine teams today far exceeds what Lewin could have imagined, but his observations, foundational principles, underpinnings,and theories are broader-based while assessing the long view, not just the sudden reactions of the present.
Most notably, Lewin answered the question: Why are teams superior in decision making and execution to individuals and, further, why do some teams outperform others in identical tasks, planning, challenges, and projects?
Lewin’s answer (in part and in short)
Entire undergraduate and graduate degrees are devoted to that one question, but here’s his answer. Teams, said Lewin:
- Develop something called process gain. The very process of being in a group improves all facets of decision-making: perspective, synthesis, clarity, etc.
- Are more likely to recognize and reject incorrect solutions.
- Demonstrate more accurate and complete memory of facts.
- Tend to have a higher motivation to achieve.
- Can make “riskier” decisions more safely and cautiously.
- Increase members’ commitment through involvement.
- Facilitate changes in the values, attitude, and behavior needed to implement decisions.
- Develop social facilitation whereby members promote each other’s success.
- Support thought polarization and the security to adopt more conservative or aggressive positions (as needed), fostering divergent and creative thinking, new perspectives, and safer risk-taking.
- Make it easier to change a person’s action theories, attitudes, behavioral patterns, and decision-making processes – and to accept these new models.
A century of proof
For nearly 90 years, since Lewin first shone his light on this matter, endless studies have been done in all sectors of the workforce (private, public, nonprofit, the military, sports), in virtually every culture on earth; under every form of government, amongst all levels of education attainment, ages, genders, and ethnic groups. In fact, you’ve probably participated in team building exercises based on Lewin’s work. There is no doubt about the effectiveness of well-performing teams.
Back to the question of the day.
So that gets us back to the question of returning to the office or continuing to work on a remote basis. If teams outperform individuals, and teams (from our cave ancestors to the present) prefer in-person interaction, support, and so on, then organizations that get back to the office will be the ones who will most likely thrive in this new economy, new industrial revolution, and new world order.
Not much different from our ancestors.