Don't be Dense: Why Your Employees Don't Want to Return to the Office

“How many days are you back in the office?”

We’re all in comparison mode right now as companies roll out (and adjust) their return-to-office plans. And, no surprise, not everyone’s happy with how it’s going. (See: Employees petition against RTO mandates while CEOs throw tantrums about lost productivity).

One thing that’s been lost in the chatter about return-to-office mandates is the corresponding rise of distributed teams.

Before the pandemic, for many knowledge workers, the people with whom you collaborated most closely also sat in close proximity to your desk. But when offices closed during COVID lockdowns, we saw team composition begin to change in favor of greater regional distribution. People moved to new cities, HR leaders expanded their talent pool targets to include new markets, and Zoom became a default method of communication.

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Flash forward to 2023, and the zeitgeist has shifted away from distributed work. Executives extol the benefits of in-person collaboration. Memos and mandates have begun to compel employees to return to the office (RTO) for the sake of “culture” and “creativity.”

But if you’re based in Los Angeles, your manager sits in New York, and your two closest colleagues are in London and Tel Aviv… Why do you need to commute to the office to meet with them over Zoom?

Who Comprises Your Team?

To investigate this dynamic, we first need to better understand team composition. While reporting lines can be used to unpack collaboration among people that report to the same manager, we use the concept of “close collaborators”––colleagues with whom you’ve spent 2+ hours across digital tools in a given week—to better understand how working teams are structured.

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Onsite Density As a Predictor of Employee Resistance

When we look at the data, one of the biggest predictors of “RTO resistance” is onsite density, which is the % of your close collaborator network that is co-located at the office with you on a typical day. The higher your onsite density, the higher your perception that time spent in the office is valuable.

Onsite density is the % of your close collaborator network that is co-located at the office with you on a typical day. The higher your onsite density, the higher your perception that time spent in the office is valuable.

If you’re an Executive reading this, chances are you’re already benefiting from high onsite density. Managers & Executives tend to see a far higher number of close collaborators when they visit the office, which reinforces their perception that in-office time is valuable.

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Individual Contributors, on the other hand, have a different onsite experience. This is especially true of those ICs working on a distributed team—when team members are spread across different cities, they won’t see close collaborators in their local office.

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As a result of low onsite density, ICs on distributed teams tend to be some of the most vocal opponents of return-to-office mandates. These employees face all the hassles of a commute without any of the benefits of connecting face-to-face with the people they work with most closely.

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Reducing the RTO Resistance

Rather than issuing a blanket RTO mandate, we encourage Executives to prioritize bringing back teams with the potential for high onsite density first.

If you want people to enjoy their time in the office, density matters. Co-located teams are predisposed to feel that spending time in the office is valuable since they’re getting facetime with their closest collaborators.

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If a team has low onsite density, it’s important to understand why. For example, if you identify a team with high onsite density potential that isn’t in the office frequently, you’ll want to remove resistance by making it easy for them to reap the full benefits of co-location.

Your Seating Chart Shouldn’t Match Your Org Chart

  • Proximity matters. If you want employees to feel like they’re having a productive experience in the office, you need people to sit next to their closest collaborators.
  • Recognizing that collaborators fluctuate, LinkedIn adopted a more fluid, neighborhood-style seating model to make it easy for people to shift seats as project groups change.

Managers Matter

  • Individual Contributors perceive office time as more valuable when their direct managers are onsite at the same time.
  • Some companies implement Anchor Days to ensure that everyone’s in the office on the same day. Other teams use tools like Scoop or Robin to quickly find the best times to get together in person.

Communicate the Benefits of Co-Location

  • Some of us derive energy from being all together in the office. For others, it can be mentally draining.
  • But you’re not coming into the office for yourself alone – you’re part of a team.
  • Help employees understand how their presence impacts the other people that they work with most closely. Be explicit: Your teammates will have a more positive experience at the office if you’re there.

What About My Distributed Teams?

Once you’ve built office momentum among your teams that live near each other, you can turn your attention to distributed teams. Facilitating in-person connection will look different when collaborators are spread over multiple cities or timezones, but companies are finding ways to make it work.

Some examples:

  • Salesloft has “Sync week” to bring people together on the 11th week of the quarter.
  • Instacart hosts Team Jams to give every team an opportunity to get together IRL a few times a year to build community & celebrate milestones.
  • Dropbox has built collaborative Studios across key metros to give remote workers a place to touchdown & reconnect with colleagues.

If quarterly just won’t cut it, then it may be time to restructure how you work. Distributed teams aren’t built for office mandates. If it’s imperative for everyone to be back in the office, the benefits of distributed teams may no longer outweigh the costs to your organization. And if ensuring regional flexibility is paramount, maybe a true RTO isn’t feasible for your organization.

The Short of It

Employees need high office density to perceive their commute as worthwhile. Adjusting work teams to co-locate close collaborators may be the quickest path to increasing employees’ perceived value of returning to the office.

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