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What Apple and Google executives missed in telling workers to go back to the office

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6 days ago Gleb Tsipursky

Google, after employees objected, recently backtracked from its plan to force employees to return to the office. Apple’s plan to force its staff back to the office three days a week met with substantial internal opposition.

Why are corporate executives trying to force employees to return to the office? They must know the results of recent surveys that asked thousands of employees about their preferences on returning to the office after the pandemic. The surveys revealed strong preferences for working from home post-pandemic at least half the time. A quarter to a third of respondents desired full-time remote work permanently. From 40% to 55% of respondents said they’d quit without permanent remote options for at least half the work week. And minority employees expressed an especially strong preference for remote work to escape in-office discrimination.

Yet many employers intend to force employees who could work remotely back to the office for much or all of the work week.

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Business leaders frequently proclaim that “people are our most important resource.” Yet the executives resistant to permitting telework are not living by that principle.

Instead, they’re doing what they feel comfortable with, even if it devastates employee morale, engagement and productivity; seriously undercuts retention and recruitment; and harms diversity and inclusion. Ultimately, their approach to this issue is a major threat to the bottom line.

In interviewing 61 midlevel and senior managers in a dozen companies, I found that a large number of leaders want to return to what they see as “normal” work life. By that, they meant turning back the clock to January 2020, before the pandemic.

Another key concern for many managers involved personal discomfort. They liked the feel of a full, buzzing office. They preferred to be surrounded by others when they work.

Other reasons involve challenges specifically related to remote work. They listed deteriorating company culture and growing work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue. Others cited a rise in team conflicts and challenges in virtual collaboration and communication. A final category of concerns relates to a lack of accountability and effective evaluation of employees.

Blind spots lead to bad decisions

Why are executives resistant to the seemingly obvious solution – a hybrid model for most, with full-time permanent remote work for those who both want it and show high effectiveness and productivity? It's because of cognitive biases – mental blind spots that lead to poor strategic decision-making.

Fortunately, by understanding these cognitive biases and taking research-based steps to address them, we can make the best decisions.

Many people feel a desire to go back to the world before the pandemic. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate way of doing things.

A major factor in leaders wanting everyone to return to the office stems from their personal discomfort with work from home. They've spent their careers surrounded by other people. They want to resume regularly walking the floors, surrounded by the energy of staff working.

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They’re falling for the anchoring bias. This mental blind spot causes us to feel anchored to our initial experiences and information.

The evidence that work from home functions well for the vast majority of workers doesn’t cause them to shift their perspective in any significant manner.

Confirmation bias offers an important explanation for this seeming incongruity. Our minds are skilled at ignoring information that contradicts our beliefs and looking only for information that confirms them.

Reluctant leaders usually tell me they don’t want to do surveys because they feel confident that a large majority of their employees would rather work in the office than at home. They wave aside the fact that large-scale public surveys show the opposite. For instance, one of the major complaints by Apple employees is a failure to do effective surveys and to listen to employees.

Confirmation bias is compounded by another cognitive bias – the false consensus effect. This mental blind spot leads us to envision other people in our in-group – such as those employed at our company – as being much more like ourselves in their beliefs than is the actual case.

Tackle work-from-home problems 

What about the specific challenges these resistant leaders brought up related to working from home, ranging from burnout to deteriorating culture? Further inquiry on each problem revealed that the leaders didn't address work-from-home problems strategically.

Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. Perceiving the shift as a brief emergency, executives focused, naturally and appropriately, on accomplishing the necessary tasks of the organization. They ignored the social and emotional glue that truly holds companies together, motivates employees and protects against burnout.

That speaks to a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of how systems should function, we ignore other possible functions, uses and behaviors. We do this even if new functions, uses and behaviors offer a better fit for a changed situation and would better address our problems.

The post-pandemic office will require the realignment of employer-employee expectations. Leaders need to use research-based strategies to overcome their gut reactions, which cause them to fall victim to mental blind spots.

By doing so, they can seize the competitive advantage of using their most important resource effectively to maximize retention, recruitment, morale, productivity, workplace culture — and their bottom line.

Gleb Tsipursky is a behavioral scientist, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of "Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What Apple and Google executives missed in telling workers to go back to the office

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