I love remote work too, but the benefits of face-to-face interaction tip the scale toward an in-office workplace



remote work return to office Aytekin Tank jotform 1

Imagine you’re walking through a forest. The sun shimmers through the trees. The only sounds are occasional birds chirping and wind rustling through the leaves. Just reading this might induce feelings of calm. Studies show natural environments trigger specific cognitive states, like reduced mental fatigue and stress. Humans are hardwired to have physiological responses to different physical environments, and these reactions can be influenced by socio-cultural factors. For example, our heart rate rises when we walk into the dentist’s office, an otherwise unremarkable room, because we know what’s coming. The sight of our bed might make us sleepy, or at least inspire a longing to curl up with a book. That’s why sleep experts recommend against doing things like reading, eating, or working in bed—don’t cross the wires. 

In the same vein, it’s important to maintain a boundary between workspaces and living spaces, which becomes challenging when people are working from home. For this reason and others, I advocate for a full return to the office. Since the pandemic slowed, my team at Jotform has transitioned to working full-time in our offices. I’ve seen the benefits, in terms of learning, collaboration, innovation, and personal well-being. Here’s a closer look at why full RTO is better than WFH or hybrid work for businesses and employees. 

Facilitating work-life balance

Many employees report higher productivity when working from home. Pulling back the next layer of the onion, researchers found that workers attribute the productivity benefits of WFH mainly to the savings in commute time. But commute time can be productive—depending on how you use it. Research shows that listening to music or browsing social media during your commute increases the likelihood of a stressful workday. Instead, the researchers recommend thinking about work while commuting by mentally mapping out a plan for the day. That’s why, on the way to the office, I make a mental list of tasks to tackle and mull over issues that need solutions. On the way home, I decompress and prepare for quality time with my wife and three kids. When I walk through the door to our home, I’m fully present.

While I occasionally work from home—if, for example, one of the kids is sick—I’m more effective working outside. The separate physical spaces allow me to click into work mode as soon as I step into the office and disconnect once I’m home. 

What’s more, a recent Gallup survey found that only 28% of remote workers strongly agree that they feel connected to their organization’s mission and purpose, a record low since 2011. Going to the office shores up the connection to a company’s purpose. 

Increasing learning opportunities 

Having grown my company from 1 to 660 employees and counting, I can attest that one of the greatest benefits of working for an organization, instead of being a lone wolf, is the opportunity to learn from colleagues, both vertically (senior employees teaching juniors and occasionally vice versa) and horizontally (across functions). 

The exchange of knowledge and skills is limited when colleagues don’t share a physical workspace. As one study found, remote work makes companies increasingly siloed. At Microsoft, remote work caused collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections to drop by about 25% of the pre-pandemic level.  

Like many companies, Jotform was forced to transition to remote work during the pandemic. While we continued to release new products and sustained our usual productivity, I noticed one group of employees was floundering—new hires. They were struggling with learning the ropes, and many were resigning in frustration. For entry-level employees who don’t have a base of skills or pre-existing relationships with colleagues, remote learning is significantly more challenging.

Now that our employees are back in the office, retention for new employees is back to pre-pandemic levels. Increased learning and mentorship has been no small part of it.  

Boosting innovation

At Jotform, our cross-functional teams have private offices where they can close the door, spitball ideas, and collaborate on projects. Each office has a whiteboard. Employees work elbow to elbow, with each other’s screens within view, so they can see what each other is doing. On occasions when we’re forced to work from home, we can still be creative. But there’s no doubt, the creative synergy is not the same. 

Indeed, studies have also shown that interacting through a screen makes employees less likely to generate ideas. When someone uses videoconferencing, the screen consumes some of the communicator’s attention, which narrows cognitive focus. Also, an analysis of 20 million research articles and 4 million patent applications found that in-person teams make more breakthrough discoveries than remote teams. These findings don’t surprise me in the least. Physical presence is more conducive to collaborative, innovative thinking. 

The arguments in favor of remote work aren’t as strong as they seem. A full RTO has undeniable benefits for businesses and employees. It fosters a clear boundary between work and personal life, enhancing productivity and mental well-being. It boosts learning and knowledge sharing, particularly benefiting new hires who thrive on direct interaction and mentorship. In-person collaboration sparks greater innovation. Sometimes, just the sight of your workspace can get the creative wheels turning. 

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