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Viewpoint: In Person Is Important—Even Now

Time to lose the remote—some work experiences just work better in real life.

Two business women shaking hands in an office.

​According to SHRM research conducted in 2021, 80 percent of HR professionals report that at least some part of their workforce is back in the office, following the widespread long-term lockdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A slim majority of U.S. workers, 61 percent, report engaging in some type of flexible work arrangement, with time in and away from the office, most often the "3+2" workweek (three days onsite and two days working from home).

Is this the right arrangement for the U.S. workforce? Is this the right arrangement for our own organization's workforce? What makes an arrangement "right"—and how will we know when we get there?

Some CEOs are calling for a full return to in-office work. Others are calling for an extension of remote work. The constant dialogue is perplexing. Employers are struggling.

The value of having work done onsite has been accurately characterized in terms of culture, creativity and innovation. But this characterization misses the day-to-day perspective of individual workers and doesn't help them imagine (let alone experience) the benefits of onsite work.

Why else would union activities be on the rise? Why else would major employers find themselves involved in class-action suits over working conditions?

Simply put, there are some things that no virtual work setting will ever accommodate properly. Here are just a few:

  • Brainstorming. Most of us are visual learners. To conceive of and present ideas to co-workers, we usually need a whiteboard for everyone to literally see the big picture. It's difficult to develop concepts without the ability to draw them out, to elicit reactions and spark discussion in the presence of fellow learners and thinkers. Video meetings are a marvel of technology, but they are also linear and limiting. Brains don't storm as easily when remote.
  • Recognition. It's great to be recognized for your accomplishments, but it's hard to get excited about being recognized online. No matter how many accolades you get, it's better to be lauded in person. There's a palpable component to peer recognition. Appreciation is best expressed through body language as much as in words, experienced in a roomful of colleagues.
  • Termination. Telling an employee in a virtual format that he or she has been terminated might seem, at first glance, advantageous to the organization. Such an impersonal approach, however, is likely to lead to unpleasant repercussions downstream. Any manager who has ever fired an employee can tell you that it's the hardest part of leading—and, paradoxically, the best training for leadership (provided you can execute it properly and endure it). Letting someone go teaches a manager humility and empathy better than any tutorial or management handbook. But none of this happens when the manager is not present, physically as well as mentally, with the employee who is being let go.
  • Mentoring. Having a "walk-and-talk" with one's mentor or mentee is a time-honored tradition. You're sharing perspectives, venting gripes and discussing broader issues with someone who has experienced or is currently experiencing similar working conditions and ambitions. Once you've engaged in the practice, you understand its full value. It's important to remember that there is as much value in the walking as there is in the talking. When you walk and talk in person, endorphins kick in; both of you start thinking more clearly, constructively and creatively; the energy adds legitimacy to the views you exchange. That just can't happen over the phone or on a screen.
  • Deal-making. Salespeople always say that a deal is never really closed without a handshake. That's more than a metaphor. Much of what happens during a sales pitch involves immediate reactions, questions and answers, showing that vendors and customers are "in the same backyard" and dealing with similar issues. Shared experience leads to better alignment of the deal. The business community still lives and dies by many of these customs. "Sales" and deals of all kinds occur in every workplace. They don't work as well virtually. Some issues are rarely if ever resolved unless they're hashed out in person.

At this point, I think the back-to-the-office/work-from-home dilemma is a toss-up.

On the one hand, my scientific brain says there is no evidence to support unyielding requirements for employees to be onsite (especially knowledge workers). On the other hand, my leadership brain says there is value in having people collaborate and coordinate together in the same physical space. It is also clear that some interactions, such as those described above, can only be handled in person.

Which brings us back to culture, creativity and innovation. For the work interactions that involve and depend on them, no remote option has truly supplanted the real-life workplace as the proper setting. Virtual substitutes are inadequate. Leaders seeking the right arrangement for their workers are just doing their best to help them survive.

I'll see you in the office.

Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is SHRM's chief knowledge officer.


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