I have been genuinely riveted by all the emerging content about the future of the office that has been pulsing through my professional feeds. There are spirited debates aplenty, all originating from articles, research, personal opinions and forecasts being shared in various forums we visit on the daily Will we all return to the office once the pandemic ends? Is the new normal truly the new normal? Or, does our future lie somewhere inside a new purpose for the traditional office environment?

The feedback employers seem to be receiving signals a range of interest in the number of days employees prefer to return to the site of their mostly white-collar jobs. Forward-thinking employers such has Facebook and Shopify have led what seems to be a charge to adapt, with more flexible policy on allowable work location. Research is proliferating to showcase the preferences of employees to make permanent the flexibility to decide where to set up shop, as respondents signal their long-term interest in #workfromhome.  Feeds are filling up with declarations that the office is dead, and that the post-pandemic organization will operate in vastly new ways.

Not so fast. While I’d like to go on record as saying I’m an advocate for a brand new definition of the office (not to mention a complete overhaul in how we work), I don’t think the revolution will be as robust as what seems to be foreshadowed by the publicity over the the revamped policies of the most innovative organizations. First off, I don’t place a great degree of weight on a lot of the research-based forecasts. I have worked with enough research in the past (at times deploying research budgets of over $2M/year on brands I worked on) to understand its use and limitations.

Much of the research I see published is produced by organizations with a vested financial interest in org transformation; I immediately dismiss these results as agenda-fuelled lead magnets. Second, regular peeps don’t know what the future holds, so they are terrible at anticipating their needs over the longer term. And third, we are not in tune with what influences our behavior and habits, and this is where I think some surprises lie ahead.

We must remind ourselves that the current trends reflect our current collective condition. As of now, few of us are trudging into the offices of 2019 to work our white-collar jobs. We are at home, and so is everyone else. We consequently imagine and project our preferences in a vacuum, purely as a function of our own social needs, the tasks we need to complete and the suitability of our personal office infrastructure.

I’m writing this post as a professor of organizational behavior and a less-than-amateur sociologist who parlayed his innate curiosities into a career in consumer marketing. It is from this perspective that I try to imagine how circumstances might change when our office doors re-open to those who want to enter, and the behavioral dynamics that might ensue.

Let’s take ourselves back to why WFM never got much widespread traction in the internet age in the first place. Yes, one part of it was that few were doing it, so those who were, were seen as exception conditions that needed to be accommodated with a little planning and virtual infrastructure. We’re less intimidated right now by all of this, so I’ll allot a point in favor of WFM continuing over the long haul.

But the other reason we didn’t stay away for long was not necessarily the social aspect but the disconnected feeling we got when we weren’t a part of what everyone else was. And that’s felt on both sides, by those in the office who don’t ‘see’ you, coupled with your own uneasiness that comes with the relative isolation. Could this problem arise again to cause momentum to bring us all back together?

I think it can – under certain circumstances, which I’ll explore later. See, I believe in catalysts, inertia and tipping points, and just like COVID and its influence, they are hard to predict, which means they live beyond our conscience and current logical constructs. But I can envision workplace scenarios that could lead to palpable tipping points that could have us all roaring back to a work style not drastically unlike what we’ve been accustomed to. A plausible sequence of events could look like this.

The Catalyst

What happens to the C-Suite post-pandemic is one powerful ingredient. And while we’ll certainly have a mix of new, contemporary work habits, I’m going to place a bet that the office and its amenities will more often than not offer a more intoxicating package of privacy and access to resources. Executives are less susceptible to the burden of a commute, as they can afford to live at a preferred distance from the office. The founders of smaller companies and startups are more likely to select locations that best suit their personal circumstances. My expectation is that we’ll see them returning at a rate that’s higher than the average. Perhaps unintentionally, they will send a signal to the rest of the organization of what is culturally preferred.

The game then becomes, what happens with everyone else? Initially, we’ll see employees spread out, making their presence felt a few or more days per week. But employees will be coming in from the new Day 1 – they have already told us that. The dynamic between the C-Suite and employees will be telling. Depending on the size of the company, those in the office could gain both formal and casual access to execs, nurturing relationships through micro-transactions. More importantly, executives tend to need things; some are planned for, but many are on-demand. Sure, texting or emailing isn’t complicated, but walking down a hall to instantly command someone’s full attention might be seen as frictionless.

If executives grow to prefer or rely on the service of those who are more visible (ie accessible), the momentum starts to shift. Relationships start to build, value exchange is more easily created. Leaders become more and more comfortable with those they feel they know better and can experience their contributions ‘live’.  Some inertia toward old mindsets can fairly easily be re-installed.

The tipping point…and toilet paper theory.

The real shift will happen when employees start to sense a correlation between live engagement with (any) decision makers and rewards, which could be anything from perks to recognition to career advancement. All it takes is mere perception that we’re somehow seen as at a disadvantage by not being present to cause a widespread shift. That, once again, to be away from the office is to be disengaged, and that no amount of zoom calls or ‘checking in’ emails can overcome. Missing out on social perks will only add fuel to emerging anxiety.

Yup, FOMO will rear its head, and we don’t see it coming. It’s a little like the pandemic toilet paper phenomenon. Especially in the second wave, we have been assured by paper manufacturers that inventories and production is sufficient to satisfy anticipated demand.  Logic dictates that we can maintain current purchase behavior and our needs will be fairly met. But all it takes is just a moment of uncertainty – one set of bare shelves on one day to ignite the chatter and trigger our brains to override preceding logic by buying in to excess so we don’t lose out.

That’s how quickly it will happen. Any dynamic that spooks us into thinking we’re missing out – and we’re back.

Contingencies

This sort of playbook could take on different complexions across companies. I’ll also admit that it’s likely that a number of companies do well at staying the pandemic course for several years. Exactly which direction your company takes will have contingent on a number of factors, the most critical of which being these:

Size of the company. Larger or more spread out companies and departments may not benefit from the intimacy of an office environment and actually see more benefits from remote engagement.

Task interdependency. Those who can conduct most of their work alone and without much supervision will be more resilient in the new model.

Pandemic activity in recruiting and real estate. Many companies are already making changes to their real estate setup and to hiring practices that disperse the workforce geographically. These organizations will remain committed to remote work, at the very least for the medium term.

New work practices. Businesses will have varying degrees of success at maintaining performance levels under current conditions. Some will innovate processes, upgrade infrastructure and install new supervisory and leadership skill sets. Others will struggle to adapt and fail to advance productivity in tandem with employee well-being. The pessimistic side of me has rarely been impressed with corporate advancement in workplace productivity – and I’m not alone – so my expectation is that companies who have not already made productivity innovation cultural will continue to have issues.

This is a much (much) longer conversation and not the time to have it, but not nearly enough companies have a passion for giving back time to employees (and realizing the benefits of agility and market responsiveness, but I digress…), a mindset that has been engrained in the way we work and lead for generations. Productivity involves way more than a few agile software installations – it’s a fundamental overhaul in culture. Many companies have no idea what this entails, or they do but ultimately back away from taking it on.

Existing relationships. If turnover is relatively stable and relationships have solidly formed across the organization, it may be more likely to sustain remote work arrangements. Personal branding is already locked in and only needs to be reinforced; this is easily accomplished in virtual arenas.

Thus far, the focus has been matters of well-being, social contact and logistics as we survey the factors that might extend this new workforce culture. These are all strong bases upon which to forecast; we just need to add in this one other ingredient which will be unique to each organization, in terms of its leadership, how it values people and how it gets things done. If the pendulum shifts for even a minute in favor of those returning to the office, the about-face from our current course will be significant and immediate. And fear of missing out will be a big part of the cause.