Many leaders at top companies are trying to get workers to return to the office. They say remote and hybrid work are bad for their employees’ mental well-being and lead to a sense of social isolation, meaninglessness, and lack of work-life boundaries, so we should just all go back to office-centric work.
One example is Google, where the company’s leadership is defending its requirement of mostly in-office work for all staff as necessary to protect social capital, meaning people’s connections to and trust in one another. That’s despite a survey of over 1,000 Google employees showing that two-thirds feel unhappy about being forced to work in the office three days per week. In internal meetings and public letters, many have threatened to leave, and some are already quitting to go to other companies with more flexible options.
Last month, GM rolled out a policy similar to Google’s, but had to backtrack because of intense employee opposition. The same is happening in some places outside of the U.S. For instance, three-fifths of all Chinese employers are refusing to offer permanent remote work options, according to a survey this year from The Paper.
For their claims that remote work hurts well-being, some of these office-centric traditionalists cite a number of prominent articles. For example, Arthur Brooks claimed in an essay that “aggravation from commuting is no match for the misery of loneliness, which can lead to depression, substance abuse, sedentary behavior, and relationship damage, among other ills.” An article in Forbes reported that over two-thirds of employees who work from home at least part of the time had trouble getting away from work at the end of the day. And Fast Company has a piece about how remote work can “exacerbate existing mental health issues” like depression and anxiety.
For his part, author Malcolm Gladwell has also championed a swift return to the office, saying there is a “core psychological truth, which is we want you to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary…I know it’s a hassle to come into the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?”
These arguments may sound logical to some, but they fly in the face of research and my own experience as a behavioral scientist and as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies. In these roles, I have seen the pitfalls of in-person work, which can be just as problematic, if not more so. Remote work is not without its own challenges, but I have helped 21 companies implement a series of simple steps to address them.
Research finds that remote work is actually better for you
The trouble with the articles described above - and claims by traditionalist business leaders and gurus - stems from a sneaky misdirection. They decry the negative impact of remote and hybrid work for wellbeing. Yet they gloss over the damage to wellbeing caused by the alternative, namely office-centric work.
It’s like comparing remote and hybrid work to a state of leisure. Sure, people would feel less isolated if they could hang out and have a beer with their friends instead of working. They could take care of their existing mental health issues if they could visit a therapist. But that’s not in the cards. What’s in the cards is office-centric work. That means the frustration of a long commute to the office, sitting at your desk in an often-uncomfortable and oppressive open office for at least 8 hours, having a sad desk lunch and unhealthy snacks, sometimes at an insanely expensive cost and, for making it through this series of insults, you’re rewarded with more frustration while commuting back home.
In a 2022 survey, the vast majority of respondents felt that working remotely improved their work-life balance. Much of that improvement stemmed from saving time due to not needing to commute and having a more flexible schedule.
So what happens when we compare apples to apples? That’s when we need to hear from the horse’s mouth: namely, surveys of employees themselves, who experienced both in-office work before the pandemic, and hybrid and remote work after COVID struck.
Consider a 2022 survey by Cisco of 28,000 full-time employees around the globe. Nearly 80 percent of respondents say that remote and hybrid work improved their overall well-being: that applies to 83 percent of Millennials, 82 percent of Gen Z, 76 percent of Gen Z, and 66 percent of Baby Boomers. The vast majority of respondents felt that working remotely improved their work-life balance.
Much of that improvement stemmed from saving time due to not needing to commute and having a more flexible schedule: 90 percent saved 4 to 8 hours or more per week. What did they do with that extra time? The top choice for almost half was spending more time with family, friends and pets, which certainly helped address the problem of isolation from the workplace. Indeed, three-quarters of them report that working from home improved their family relationships, and 51 percent strengthened their friendships. Twenty percent used the freed up hours for self-care.
Of the small number who report their work-life balance has not improved or even worsened, the number one reason is the difficulty of disconnecting from work, but 82 percent report that working from anywhere has made them happier. Over half say that remote work decreased their stress levels.
Other surveys back up Cisco’s findings. For example, a 2022 Future Forum survey compared knowledge workers who worked full-time in the office, in a hybrid modality, and fully remote. It found that full-time in-office workers felt the least satisfied with work-life balance, hybrid workers were in the middle, and fully remote workers felt most satisfied. The same distribution applied to questions about stress and anxiety. A mental health website called Tracking Happiness found in a 2022 survey of over 12,000 workers that fully remote employees report a happiness level about 20 percent greater than office-centric ones. Another survey by CNBC in June found that fully remote workers are more often very satisfied with their jobs than workers who are fully in-person.
Academic peer-reviewed research provides further support. Consider a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health of bank workers who worked on the same tasks of advising customers either remotely or in-person. It found that fully remote workers experienced higher meaningfulness, self-actualization, happiness, and commitment than in-person workers. Another study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reported that hybrid workers, compared to office-centric ones, experienced higher satisfaction with work and had 35 percent more job retention.
What about the supposed burnout crisis associated with remote work? Indeed, burnout is a concern. A survey by Deloitte finds that 77 percent of workers experienced burnout at their current job. Gallup came up with a slightly lower number of 67 percent in its survey. But guess what? Both of those surveys are from 2018, long before the era of widespread remote work.
By contrast, in a Gallup survey in late 2021, 58 percent of respondents reported less burnout. An April 2021 McKinsey survey found burnout in 54 percent of Americans and 49 percent globally. A September 2021 survey by The Hartford reported 61 percent burnout. Arguably, the increase in full or part-time remote opportunities during the pandemic helped to address feelings of burnout, rather than increasing them. Indeed, that finding aligns with the earlier surveys and peer-reviewed research suggesting remote and hybrid work improves wellbeing.
Remote work isn’t perfect – here’s how to fix its shortcomings
Still, burnout is a real problem for hybrid and remote workers, as it is for in-office workers. Employers need to offer mental health benefits with online options to help employees address these challenges, regardless of where they’re working.
Moreover, while they’re better overall for wellbeing, remote and hybrid work arrangements do have specific disadvantages around work-life separation. To address work-life issues, I advise my clients who I helped make the transition to hybrid and remote work to establish norms and policies that focus on clear expectations and setting boundaries.
For working at home and collaborating with others, there’s sometimes an unhealthy expectation that once you start your workday in your home office chair, and that you’ll work continuously while sitting there.
Some people expect their Slack or Microsoft Teams messages to be answered within an hour, while others check Slack once a day. Some believe email requires a response within three hours, and others feel three days is fine. As a result of such uncertainty and lack of clarity about what’s appropriate, too many people feel uncomfortable disconnecting and not replying to messages or doing work tasks after hours. That might stem from a fear of not meeting their boss’s expectations or not wanting to let their colleagues down.
To solve this problem, companies need to establish and incentivize clear expectations and boundaries. They should develop policies and norms around response times for different channels of communication. They also need to clarify work-life boundaries – for example, the frequency and types of unusual circumstances that will require employees to work outside of regular hours.
Moreover, for working at home and collaborating with others, there’s sometimes an unhealthy expectation that once you start your workday in your home office chair, and that you’ll work continuously while sitting there (except for your lunch break). That’s not how things work in the office, which has physical and mental breaks built in throughout the day. You took 5-10 minutes to walk from one meeting to another, or you went to get your copies from the printer and chatted with a coworker on the way.
Those and similar physical and mental breaks, research shows, decrease burnout, improve productivity, and reduce mistakes. That’s why companies should strongly encourage employees to take at least a 10-minute break every hour during remote work. At least half of those breaks should involve physical activity, such as stretching or walking around, to counteract the dangerous effects of prolonged sitting. Other breaks should be restorative mental activities, such as meditation, brief naps, walking outdoors, or whatever else feels restorative to you.
To facilitate such breaks, my client organizations such as the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute shortened hour-long meetings to 50 minutes and half-hour meetings to 25 minutes, to give everyone – both in-person and remote workers – a mental and physical break and transition time.
Very few people will be reluctant to have shorter meetings. After that works out, move to other aspects of setting boundaries and expectations. Doing so will require helping team members get on the same page and reduce conflicts and tensions. By setting clear expectations, you’ll address the biggest challenge for wellbeing for remote and hybrid work: establishing clear work-life boundaries.
You are driving along the highway and see an electronic sign that reads: “3,238 traffic deaths this year.” Do you think this reminder of roadside mortality would change how you drive? According to a recent, peer-reviewed study in Science, seeing that sign would make you more likely to crash. That’s ironic, given that the sign’s creators assumed it would make you safer.
The study, led by a pair of economists at the University of Toronto and University of Minnesota, examined seven years of traffic accident data from 880 electric highway sign locations in Texas, which experienced 4,480 fatalities in 2021. For one week of each month, the Texas Department of Transportation posts the latest fatality messages on signs along select traffic corridors as part of a safety campaign. Their logic is simple: Tell people to drive with care by reminding them of the dangers on the road.
But when the researchers looked at the data, they found that the number of crashes increased by 1.52 percent within three miles of these signs when compared with the same locations during the same month in previous years when signs did not show fatality information. That impact is similar to raising the speed limit by four miles or decreasing the number of highway troopers by 10 percent.
The scientists calculated that these messages contributed to 2,600 additional crashes and 16 deaths annually. They also found a social cost, meaning the financial expense borne by society as a whole due to these crashes, of $377 million per year, in Texas alone.
The cause, they argue, is distracted driving. Much like incoming texts or phone calls, these “in-your-face” messages grab your attention and undermine your focus on the road. The signs are particularly distracting and dangerous because, in communicating that many people died doing exactly what you are doing, they cause anxiety. Supporting this hypothesis, the scientists discovered that crashes increase when the signs report higher numbers of deaths. Thus, later in the year, as that total mortality figure goes up, so do the percentage of crashes.
Boomerang effects happen when those with authority, in government or business, fail to pay attention to the science. These leaders rely on armchair psychology and gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work.
That change over time is not simply a function of changing weather, the study’s authors observed. They also found that the increase in car crashes is greatest in more complex road segments, which require greater focus to navigate.
The overall findings represent what behavioral scientists like myself call a “boomerang effect,” meaning an intervention that produces consequences opposite to those intended. Unfortunately, these effects are all too common. Between 1998 and 2004, Congress funded the $1 billion National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which famously boomeranged. Using professional advertising and public relations firms, the campaign bombarded kids aged 9 to 18 with anti-drug messaging, focused on marijuana, on TV, radio, magazines, and websites. A 2008 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that children and teens saw these ads two to three times per week. However, more exposure to this advertising increased the likelihood that youth used marijuana. Why? Surveys and interviews suggested that young people who saw the ads got the impression that many of their peers used marijuana. As a result, they became more likely to use the drug themselves.
Boomerang effects happen when those with authority, in government or business, fail to pay attention to the science. These leaders rely on armchair psychology and gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work.
To be clear, message campaigns—whether on electronic signs or through advertisements—can have a substantial effect on behavior. Extensive research reveals that people can be influenced by “nudges,” which shape the environment to influence their behavior in a predictable manner. For example, a successful campaign to reduce car accidents involved sending smartphone notifications that helped drivers evaluate their performance after each trip. These messages informed drivers of their personal average and best performance, as measured by accelerometers and gyroscopes. The campaign, which ran over 21 months, significantly reduced accident frequency.
Nudges work best when rigorously tested with small-scale experiments that evaluate their impact. Because behavioral scientists are infrequently consulted in creating these policies, some studies suggest that only 62 percent have a statistically significant effect. Other research reveals that up to 15 percent of desired interventions may backfire.
In the case of roadside mortality signage, the data are damning. The new research based on the Texas signs aligns with several past studies. For instance, research has shown that increasing people’s anxiety causes them to drive worse. Another, a Virginia Tech study in a laboratory setting, found that showing drivers fatality messages increased what psychologists call “cognitive load,” or the amount of information your brain is processing, with emotionally-salient information being especially burdensome and preoccupying, thus causing more distraction.
Nonetheless, Texas, along with at least 28 other states, has pursued mortality messaging campaigns since 2012, without testing them effectively. Behavioral science is critical here: when road signs are tested by people without expertise in how minds work, the results are often counterproductive. For example, the Virginia Tech research looked at road signs that used humor, popular culture, sports, and other nontraditional themes with the goal of provoking an emotional response. When they measured how participants responded to these signs, they noticed greater cognitive activation and attention in the brain. Thus, the researchers decided, the signs worked. But a behavioral scientist would note that increased attention likely contributes to the signs’ failure. As the just-published study in Science makes clear, distracting, emotionally-loaded signs are dangerous to drivers.
But there is good news. First, in most cases, it’s very doable to run an effective small-scale study testing an intervention. States could set up a safety campaign with a few electric signs in a diversity of settings and evaluate the impact over three months on driver crashes after seeing the signs. Policymakers could ask researchers to track the data as they run ads for a few months in a variety of nationally representative markets for a few months and assess their effectiveness. They could also ask behavioral scientists whether their proposals are well designed, whether similar policies have been tried previously in other places, and how these policies have worked in practice.
Everyday citizens can write to and call their elected officials to ask them to make this kind of research a priority before embracing an untested safety campaign. More broadly, you can encourage them to avoid relying on armchair psychology and to test their intuitions before deploying initiatives that might place the public under threat.
COVID-19 prompted numerous companies to reconsider their approach to the future of work. Many leaders felt reluctant about maintaining hybrid and remote work options after vaccines became widely available. Yet the emergence of dangerous COVID variants such as Omicron has shown the folly of this mindset.
To mitigate the risks of new variants and other public health threats, as well as to satisfy the desires of a large majority of employees who express a strong desire in multiple surveys for a flexible hybrid or fully remote schedule, leaders are increasingly accepting that hybrid and remote options represent the future of work. No wonder that a February 2022 survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond showed that more and more firms are offering hybrid and fully-remote work options. The firms expect to have more remote workers next year and more geographically-distributed workers.
Although hybrid and remote work mitigates public health risks, it poses another set of health concerns relevant to employee wellbeing, due to the threat of proximity bias. This term refers to the negative impact on work culture from the prospect of inequality among office-centric, hybrid, and fully remote employees.
The difference in time spent in the office leads to concerns ranging from decreased career mobility for those who spend less facetime with their supervisor to resentment building up against the staff who have the most flexibility in where to work. In fact, a January 2022 survey by the company Slack of over 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders shows that proximity bias is the top concern – expressed by 41% of executives - about hybrid and remote work.
To address this problem requires using best practices based on cognitive science for creating a culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.” This solution is based on guidance that I developed for leaders at 17 pioneering organizations for a company culture fit for the future of work.
Protect from proximity bias via the "Excellence From Anywhere" strategy
So why haven’t firms addressed the obvious problem of proximity bias? Any reasonable external observer could predict the issues arising from differences of time spent in the office.
Unfortunately, leaders often fail to see the clear threat in front of their nose. You might have heard of black swans: low-probability, high-impact threats. Well, the opposite kind of threats are called gray rhinos: obvious dangers that we fail to see because of our mental blindspots. The scientific name for these blindspots is cognitive biases, which cause leaders to resist best practices in transitioning to a hybrid-first model.
The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: the location doesn’t matter.
Leaders can address this by focusing on a shared culture of “Excellence From Anywhere.” This term refers to a flexible organizational culture that takes into account the nature of an employee's work and promotes evaluating employees based on task completion, allowing remote work whenever possible.
Addressing Resentments Due to Proximity Bias
The “Excellence From Anywhere” strategy addresses concerns about treatment of remote workers by focusing on deliverables, regardless of where you work. Doing so also involves adopting best practices for hybrid and remote collaboration and innovation.
By valuing deliverables, collaboration, and innovation through a focus on a shared work culture of “Excellence From Anywhere,” you can instill in your employees a focus on deliverables. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: the location doesn’t matter.
This work culture addresses concerns about fairness by reframing the conversation to focus on accomplishing shared goals, rather than the method of doing so. After all, no one wants their colleagues to have to commute out of spite.
This technique appeals to the tribal aspect of our brains. We are evolutionarily adapted to living in small tribal groups of 50-150 people. Spending different amounts of time in the office splits apart the work tribe into different tribes. However, cultivating a shared focus on business outcomes helps mitigate such divisions and create a greater sense of unity, alleviating frustrations and resentments. Doing so helps improve employee emotional wellbeing and facilitates good collaboration.
Solving the facetime concerns of proximity bias
But what about facetime with the boss? To address this problem necessitates shifting from the traditional, high-stakes, large-scale quarterly or even annual performance evaluations to much more frequent weekly or biweekly, low-stakes, brief performance evaluation through one-on-one in-person or videoconference check-ins.
Supervisees agree with their supervisor on three to five weekly or biweekly performance goals. Then, 72 hours before their check-in meeting, they send a brief report, under a page, to their boss of how they did on these goals, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them, a quantitative self-evaluation, and proposed goals for next week. Twenty-four hours before the meeting, the supervisor responds in a paragraph-long response with their initial impressions of the report.
It’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss: knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer.
At the one-on-one, the supervisor reinforces positive aspects of performance and coaches the supervisee on how to solve challenges better, agrees or revises the goals for next time, and affirms or revises the performance evaluation. That performance evaluation gets fed into a constant performance and promotion review system, which can replace or complement a more thorough annual evaluation.
This type of brief and frequent performance evaluation meeting ensures that the employee’s work is integrated with efforts by the supervisor’s other employees, thereby ensuring more unity in achieving business outcomes. It also mitigates concerns about facetime, since all get at least some personalized attention from their team leader. But more importantly, it addresses the underlying concerns about career mobility by giving all staff a clear indication of where they stand at all times. After all, it’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss: knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer.
Such best practices help integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work while fostering good relationships with managers. Research shows supervisor-supervisee relationships are the most critical ones for employee wellbeing, engagement, and retention.
You don’t have to be the CEO to implement these techniques. Lower-level leaders of small rank-and-file teams can implement these shifts within their own teams, adapting their culture and performance evaluations. And if you are a staff member rather than a leader, send this article to your supervisor and other employees at your company: start a conversation about the benefits of addressing proximity bias using such research-based best practices.