Recently, I visited a life-sciences company known for its clinical and commercial successes. Impressed by the facilities and the lively energy around me, I asked my host about the company’s work location policies. Employees were asked to show up in the office three days a week—days selected by the team, not by senior management.
Flexible workspaces accommodated the varying needs of different teams and tasks, and free breakfast was available in an expansive light-filled cafeteria. “People want to be here,” the executive explained. Employees were showing up more, not less, than the policy specified. Looking around, it was easy to understand why you’d want to be in this beautiful building, with its driven, smart professionals, eager to reduce patient suffering.
This company is a glimpse into a trend that will become common in 2024: Once enough people are in the office, the majority will want to be there too. FOMO will replace “you can’t make me.” The push to a return-to-office (RTO) will be replaced by a pull.
Research and popular media on remote work over the past three years have identified obvious benefits (ditching the commute) and shortcomings (loss of mentoring or innovation) of working from home.
As such, it was clear that navigating a return-to-office would require creative solutions and thoughtful experiments. However, RTO policies have usually been framed as mandates—or worse, as one-size-fits-all rigid plans. The result has been frustration and resistance. For instance, when Amazon CEO Andy Jassy recently announced a RTO policy, workers demonstrated in protest.
In 2024, however, as a growing number of people realize some of the pleasures of returning to the office, the simple us-versus-them, employees-versus-bosses, young-versus-old narratives will dissipate. The future of work—if it’s to be effective in producing the products and services companies hope to provide their customers—will have to be cocreated. Many factors will drive the creative process, starting with the nature of the work itself. Notably, some work can be done anywhere, alone, with no harm to productivity or quality (penning an article); other work can only be done together and in person (the care of hospitalized patients). A vast landscape of work lies somewhere in between, with its quality determined by how effectively shifting configurations of people and skills come together to deliver products and services.
For instance, research on employee proximity conducted at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that sitting near senior colleagues led junior engineers to learn more and to be less likely to leave their jobs, an effect that was particularly pronounced for women and younger employees. Differences in types of work may help explain statistics estimating that 12 percent of full-time employees work from home; 60 percent fully in person, and 28 percent are hybrid. Although numbers vary widely across sources—for example, a McKinsey study estimated that 58 percent can work at home at least one day a week—they surely indicate a work in progress.