Bosses Think In-Office Work 3 Times a Week is ‘The Magical Number.’ ‘It’s Not,’ Says CEO

Mar 21, 2023

Corporate bosses are getting return-to-office requirements all wrong, global work experts and remote leaders said during a panel conversation at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, recently.

A three-days-a-week requirement has become the norm at many companies, but it’s far from a “best practice” or grounded in good data, says Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, the global research and analytics firm that evaluates corporate culture.

“Why three days a week? Why not four? Why not two?” he says. Many bosses land on three days a week as if it’s “the magical number. It’s not. You should have a reason why three matters.”

‘Every leader should listen better’

Bush says many leaders mistakenly assume that being together in-person automatically leads to better collaboration, though “there’s no data to support it, because there was a lot of innovation with people not being together over the last three years.”

Then, there are leaders with “control issues,” Bush says: “The one thing you don’t do is [say] ‘I want everybody back because it makes me feel better.’” This is a big risk for hiring and retention, he adds. People who work for these types of leaders “are updating their profiles on LinkedIn.”

As far as best practices go, Bush says “every leader should listen better” and understand how teams work best based on one-on-one conversations, surveys, focus groups or 90-day trial runs.

Sarah Fern, chief people officer at Velocity Global, says listening is the biggest challenge for remote leaders — and most importantly, understanding what you’re not hearing.

“What are they not telling you?” Fern says. It’s important for managers to proactively seek feedback outside of group settings, she adds. “Everyone has feedback. But how do you get to that feedback? How do you build that trust? Maybe they don’t want to tell you — maybe they want to tell someone else. You have to build the relationships with your team.”

‘There are not good remote work policies in place’

The haphazard state of today’s flexible work environment is far from what the future of remote and hybrid work will look like, says Jessica Reeder, director of remote organizational effectiveness at Upwork.

“There are not good remote work policies in place,” she says. “We’re learning. This is something that’s very new to most companies.”

She says working during the pandemic wasn’t working remotely as much as it was working through crisis in a remote setting. “This is making it work because you have to,” she explains, “but the real long-term work of building out policies and practices that actually keep people happy, keep them working at your company and not looking for another job, and keep them productive is a long process.”

One basic fix that companies still miss, Reeder says, is setting up meetings with a remote-first approach, where everyone dials into the same videoconferencing line, including people who are in the office.

A bigger challenge for CEOs and companies, Reeder says, is “listening and observing and understanding and being conscious of what’s not working. That’s the difficult part that many companies are in right now.”

By Jennifer Liu