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Taken aback by growing employee resistance and turnover, Amazon recently suffered the embarrassment of backing away from its intention to force all staff to return to the office five days a week, instead allowing them to work a hybrid schedule. Apple’s plan to force its staff back to the office has caused substantial internal opposition and churn.

Why are these and so many other leaders of major companies compelling employees to return to the office? They must know about the extensive, in-depth surveys from spring 2021 that asked thousands of employees about their preferences on returning to the office after the pandemic. 

Over three-quarters of all respondents wanted to work from home post pandemic at least half the time; a third wanted to do so full-time. Minority employees expressed an especially strong preference for remote work to escape in-office discrimination. About half said they’d quit without their preferred option.

So why are so many leaders taking a course that devastates retention and recruitment, seriously harms morale and engagement, and undercuts diversity and inclusion?

After interviewing 61 mid-level and senior leaders on this question, I found that a large number of leaders wanted to return to what they saw as “normal” work life. By that, they meant turning back the clock to January 2020, before the pandemic.

Another key concern for many involved personal discomfort. They liked the feel of a full, buzzing office. They preferred to be surrounded by others when they work.

Other reasons involve challenges specifically related to remote work. They listed deteriorating company culture and growing work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue.

Why are these leaders resistant to the seemingly-obvious solution: a hybrid model for most, with full-time permanent remote work for those who both want it and show high effectiveness and productivity? This is because of cognitive biases, which are mental blindspots that lead to poor decision-making in our workfinances, and relationships.

Many people feel a desire to go back to the world before the pandemic. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things. 

A major factor in leaders wanting everyone to return to the office stems from their personal discomfort with work from home. They succeeded in their long careers by being surrounded by other people.

They’re falling for the anchoring bias. This mental blindspot causes us to feel anchored to our initial experiences and information. 

The evidence that work from home functions well for the vast majority doesn’t cause them to shift their perspective in any significant manner. The confirmation biasoffers an important explanation for this seeming incongruity. Our minds are skilled at ignoring information that contradicts our beliefs, and looking only for information that confirms them.

Reluctant leaders usually tell me they don’t want to do surveys because they feel confident that the large majority of their employees would rather work at the office than at home. They wave aside the large-scale public surveys show the opposite.

In this refusal to do surveys, the confirmation bias is compounded by another cognitive bias, called the false consensus effect. This mental blindspot leads us to envision other people in our in-group - such as those employed at our company - as being much more like ourselves in their beliefs than is the actual case.

What about the specific challenges these resistant leaders brought up related to working from home, ranging from burnout to deteriorating culture and so on? Further inquiry on each problem revealed that the leaders never addressed these work-from-home problems strategically. Instead, they stuck with the model of telework they adopted as part of the March 2020 lockdowns.

That speaks to a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of how systems should function, we dismiss new ways of functioning even when they would be a better fit for a changed situation.

The office after the pandemic will require the realignment of employer-employee expectations. Leaders need to use research-based strategies to overcome their gut reactions that cause them to fall victim to mental blindspot. Only by doing so can they seize the competitive advantage from using their most important resource effectively to maximize their retention, recruitment, morale, productivity, workplace culture, and thus their bottom line.


Bio: An internationally-renowned thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a behavioral scientist, CEO of the future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and author of Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.