Return of office debate and organizational communications culture

The return to office controversy has been about where knowledge workers work. Due to the sunk cost fallacy, anchoring and present cognitive biases, the management of many knowledge organizations — particularly those with substantial investments in office real estate –– believe that should be in the office most of the week. On the flip side, many knowledge workers disagree, arguing knowledge work is more virtual and doesn’t fit into a factory paradigm of set daily shifts measured by office attendance.

But the issue isn’t merely about office space and cube farms and the commute to them. The larger underlying issue is how work gets done and specifically a knowledge organization’s communication culture. In some organizations, the culture is spoken. Staff talk with each other in real time, in conference rooms, break rooms, and in offices and cubicles. In others, it’s more written and asynchronous, expressed in collaboration and project management platforms, emails and chats.

Organizations whose communication culture is more real time spoken-based are naturally more office centric whereas those that are not are more virtual. The former tend to have more difficulty with non co-located work. Calendars get overloaded with meetings since those are the primary means of communication and decision making. This situation existed for decades before the public health restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many organizations out of the office. Knowledge workers complain it’s difficult to get work done in a day filled with meetings; the dominant speaking communication culture interferes with more concentrated thought work. When done virtually, it leads to “Zoom fatigue.”

In some organizations, management frowns on staff informally chatting among themselves, thinking they are not getting any work done. Ironically, these same organizations argue staff must be in the office to bump into each other and talk informally, contending these activities promote collaboration and serendipitous creativity. So there’s a bit of a conflict going on between these expectations that requires organizations to engage in some honest introspection. If real time, spoken communication is truly at the core of an organization’s communications culture, management must determine how that’s best done: where, when and how often and for what purposes.

For those organizations looking to become less office-centric, their challenge is to build a communications culture based more on asynchronous written communication and select the collaboration and project management platforms that best support it.