Return To Office is all about power

Enlightened employers will work on culture instead

Ben Werdmuller

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Expensify’s experiment to use craft coffees and a free cocktail bar to lure employees back to the office failed spectacularly:

If the best office in the entire planet can’t compete with the local coffee shop, the tightly-closed Pandora’s box of “work from anywhere” has burst open, and will never be resealed. No amount of begging or coercion is going to work in the long run: the businesses that demand it are fighting a losing war of attrition against an infinite universal energy. You heard it here folks: the office is dead.

This isn’t where every company has ended up on this issue. Most large tech companies in particular are demanding a return to the office, for a few reasons.

The first, although not the main reason, is that a lot of very large companies have real estate portfolios that are now sitting mostly-empty, which will drive down prices when leases come up for renewal, in turn jeopardizing the value of commercial real estate holdings. (Boo hoo.)

The second is a belief — more religious than fact-based — that workers are more productive in the office than if they work from home. (Research tends to show the opposite.)

And the third is ostensibly about company culture:

In a 2022 Korn Ferry survey of 15,000 global executives, two-thirds agreed that corporate culture accounts for more than 30% of their company’s market value. Many leaders, the report notes, believe that a strong culture can only be established and maintained “if everyone is — at least some of the time — occupying the same workplace.”

Culture is important — the core issue on most teams — and I’ll come back to that issue. There’s a subtext here, too, about power. The essential flip is between an employer-controlled environment and a worker-controlled environment. In the former, employees can be observed and their behavior influenced. In the latter, not so much.

This balance of power, at least for knowledge workers, is what has flipped forever. Nobody’s willingly going back to an environment of predominant employer control — at least not without significant concessions.

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Ben Werdmuller

Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.