As we debate the post-COVID-19 return to the office, a question is circulating in some leadership conversations: “Do people really need to be co-located?”
The word itself — sterile, icy, impersonal — underscores how executives making these decisions underestimate the deeply human dimensions of the workplace. What they’re asking is whether, in our future post-Covid world, we need to “work together” in the same offices and buildings at the same time.
The answer is yes.
Purely Practical Solutions Can Miss the Mark
Study after study shows that the most successful company cultures foster two things: psychological safety and employee engagement. These cultural characteristics go far beyond the camaraderie of the break room to the core of workplace trust, productivity and future leader development.
Psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, is the climate of an organization in which employees believe they can speak up, take risks, and make mistakes without fear of punishment or embarrassment.
In a psychologically safe atmosphere, teams feel comfortable to disagree until they reach the best decisions or put forward innovative ideas without fear of sounding foolish.
Employee engagement reflects positive emotions such as loyalty to the company, pride in one’s job, and fulfillment from serving a larger purpose together. Engaged professionals feel deeply invested in their work and in their organization.
Emotional connection with co-workers and leaders is critical to employee engagement. People routinely cite the active support of a mentor as a meaningful differentiator between companies that are great places to work and those that aren’t. They also say having a “best friend at work” keeps them invested, emotionally engaged, and professionally effective.
Solutions Need to be Practical and Personal
Continuing to replace physical meetings with Zoom calls and exchanging permanent desks with “hoteling” space make practical sense. They don’t, however, make sense on a human level. While some people are content, and even prefer, remote work options in the near-term, over time these options will fail both the employee and the company.
Yes, productivity has remained high as people persisted amid the COVID-19 crisis, and working from home had the upsides of freedom and flexibility. But this well of emotional energy and participation will eventually run dry.
Long-term remote work erodes psychological safety and creates emotional disconnection – the fuel of stagnation and disengagement. They also curtail individual and company well-being, a mainstay of health and quality of life.
It’s hard to imagine how relationships will flourish without literally putting our heads together over pizza to solve a tough problem. It’s hard to imagine making meaningful strides toward belonging and inclusion if we can’t look one another in the eye. It’s hard to forge true bonds as a team without working side-by-side, and even more challenging to integrate new team members at a distance.
Organizations exist because people can do more collectively than we can do alone. Flexibility is a good thing. Harnessing our full potential – co-located – is how we’ll thrive.