If you’re pro-working-from-home, you probably don’t need a survey to tell you all the benefits. A recent survey of 550 tech professionals, from VC firm Worklife Ventures, reaffirmed the boons of working from home: More face time with the family, less time commuting, better schedule flexibility, and more autonomy overall.
But while about half of respondents (51.47%) said that employers who mandate office returns are stuck in the past, just as many respondents (48.53%) said a return to the office is “better for culture, morale and productivity.”
That desire for a more united company culture and overall gusto runs deep. Researchers presented survey-takers with a classic coronavirus-era scenario: Your employer says to return to the office full time, lest you be fired.
About 10% said they’d walk the plank. Half said they’d start swimming toward bluer waters, i.e. remote-friendly roles; about 20% said they would not jump ship, but they wouldn’t be happy about it, either. More than 20%, however, said they’d gladly return to the office, particularly because they miss their coworkers.
IRL connection is top of mind
In fact, camaraderie with colleagues was the main thing remote workers told Worklife they missed about the office.
Co-worker friendships were of more concern to survey-takers than navigating the career challenges posed by proximity bias, and missed more than “office perks.” According to Worklife’s study, co-worker friendships were ranked higher by survey-takers than the boundaries creating work-life balance, the joy of “getting out of the house” or the benefit of a “regular change of environment.”
The data almost suggests that if HR really wants to encourage folks to come back into the office, they’ll have to rebrand: “Come into the office and hang out with your friends. You know, the ones who just so happen to be on the same payroll.”
This rebrand would probably be a stronger draw than “come into the office to collaborate.” An expert told HR Dive that this loaded phrase often signals to workers that their employers don’t trust them.
I’m not saying tech startups and Fortune 500s need to fluff up some West Elm beanbags, erect some game tables, and install nitro cold-brew taps to lure folks back to the office (although it probably wouldn’t hurt). I’m saying that employers should create more intentional spaces for connecting that don’t necessarily involve work, but are work-approved and peer-oriented.
So what does this look like in practice?
About 40% of remote survey-takers told Worklife that to combat their WFH isolation, they are “attending more work-related IRL events.” As an HR professional, maybe your mind jumps first to happy hours. As a queer person — whose heritage was preserved in gay bars and leather clubs, and whose community continues to commune in such spaces — I often think about how lonely it is to not be the “going out” type while trying to connect in those settings. It may not be the best space for employees who are in alcohol recovery.
A happy medium exists. At my own place of work, I’ve enjoyed grabbing coffee with my co-workers and lowkey lunches with my editors.
I’m here to play angel’s advocate and say that there are ways to facilitate this sort of connection — that don’t involve a return-to-office mandate. At my office, those IRL meetups were facilitated by a Slack integration in our newsroom’s watercooler channel.
The extension randomly puts me in AI-fueled group chat with my co-workers. From there, the integration gives us nudges to connect, finding time on each person’s calendars to hop on a video call and offering dating app-esque conversation-starters. (Think Hinge, but less cringe and totally work-appropriate.) The cool thing about a no-pressure, hybrid work model is that I strike up some of these connections via video call, and other match-ups have manifested as IRL meetings.
Blame it on my birth chart (Libra Stellium, Virgo Venus) or the fact that I write about psychological safety for a living. But I approach my colleague connections the way I approach all my relationships: with tenderness and warmth. Especially in a funky, ever-changing labor landscape, I can understand why people are craving connection with their co-workers beyond deliverables.