Why Forcing Employees to Return to the Office Might Force Them to Quit
I’m the CEO of Articulate, a company that’s been fully remote for 20 years — the entire life of the company. Yep, two decades without an office. No office, ever. Given all the skepticism around whether remote work is viable from a business perspective, we are living proof that it is.
We have top decile business metrics with a rule of 40 that’s always in the 70–100 range (yes, you read that right). We’ve grown profitably every year of our 20 years in business. Last year, we had one of the largest Series A ever, raising $1.5 billion from premier growth investors General Atlantic, Blackstone Growth, and ICONIQ Growth.
Now, let’s talk about Articulate’s culture. One of the biggest knocks on remote work is that it’s hard to foster a culture of trust, connection, and engagement when Zoom and Slack are your primary methods of communication. Not true. It’s hard to foster trust, connection, and engagement when your culture is toxic.
It’s not the methods of communication and collaboration that matter. What matters is whether the people engaging in that communication and collaboration are doing so in a way that honors others’ humanity. (Check out the Human-Centered Organization framework I developed to understand what that looks like.)
Articulate has demonstrated that you can build a fantastic culture of connection, engagement, and trust remotely. Our Glassdoor rating is 4.9, a near statistical impossibility, and we are on Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work 2022 list. We were also named to Inc. Magazine’s Best Workplaces list, a result of surveys Inc. sends to employees to get their take on their company’s culture. Perhaps most telling, when many tech companies were experiencing 15–25% turnover last year, we had 8%. This year, we are tracking at 2% turnover.
To put it flatly, I’m flabbergasted by the misdiagnoses of the Great Resignation by supposed luminaries as a byproduct of remote work policies. The argument goes that remote work is the root cause of decreased workplace engagement and disconnection between employees. The supposed remedy is to force people to return to the workplace “to nurture those all-important relationships with teammates and superiors” even though employees are very clearly telling their employers that they want to work from home. In fact, a survey conducted last year by Harvard Business Review found that 40% of employees would start looking for a new job or quit immediately if they were forced to return to work. And guess what? Many did just that when their employers started requiring them to return to the office.
What’s even more mind-boggling to me is that the very same leaders who gave lip service to fixing their cultures in the wake of the Racial (White) Awakening sparked by George Floyd’s devastating murder by police don’t seem to understand (or don’t care) that forcing people to return to work will disproportionally impact people of color and women with young children. According to one study, only 3% of Black knowledge workers want to return to the office full time. That research also found that remote and hybrid work environments double a sense of belonging at work for Black folx and provide a 64% boost in their ability to manage stress.
The most generous explanation of why companies are forcing people to return to work is that they really don’t understand that you can foster engagement and connection in a remote environment. (I recently talked about that very topic with Dan Schawbel.) But I suspect it has more to do with two other factors:
First, many employers don’t trust that their employees will actually work unless someone is keeping an eye on them. (Here’s an article I wrote explaining how you know whether employees are working.)
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, there’s a lot of money invested in commercial real estate in this country. So, who stands to lose when the commercial real estate market declines rather than grows? Could it be some of the same powerful people and companies so adamant that workers return to the office?
As for Articulate, we will stay fully remote and fully committed to sustaining a workplace culture that yields both amazing business and people metrics. And we’ll scoop up all the employees other companies are losing because they aren’t.