HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

What Explains the Dichotomy in Remote Work Preferences?

While the widespread shift to remote work has been celebrated by many former office-workers, it’s been surprising to many observers the high percentages of those employees who are actually eager to return to the office, at least some of the time. Depending on the poll and when it was conducted, the proportion of workers who say they’d like to return to the office is not dramatically different than those who say they’d prefer to stay fully remote, as this Gallup data shows.

hybrid work callThere are pros and cons to both a remote work and in-office arrangement: working remotely avoids hectic commutes and allows for greater flexibility in managing time; working in-office allows closer personal connections with colleagues and greater structure.

But in an article for Forge, Clive Thompson argues that a big part of an employee’s work location preference is driven by something as seemingly simple as how conducive their workspace is to productivity.

Whether Remote or On-Site a Productive Work Setting Matters

In pondering the question of why there’s such an even split between those who prefer in-office versus remote work, Thompson suggests, “Maybe it’s about how our brains outsource our thinking to our environments. If you prefer working from home, it might be because you’ve been able to create a better cognitive environment than you had at work. If you’re desperate to get back to the office, you may have discovered home is a terrible space in which to think.”

Thompson argues that the way we organize our workspaces helps us leverage our cognitive abilities. Keeping multiple browser tabs open and notes on a whiteboard help us create “artificial memory,” so we don’t need to juggle multiple ideas in our heads simultaneously, for example.

Self-Organization Drives Personal Productivity

Some employees thrive in busy, bustling environments. Others require quiet and isolation to do their best work. These preferences may ebb and flow depending on the type of work being done.

For instance, Thompson notes: “If you’ve ever had to work on a really complicated project, you usually configure your physical environment to help out.” You might be the type of employee who likes to spread things out all around you so you can easily see the entire scope of the project. Or you may prefer to do everything electronically, possibly employing multiple screens to keep you maximally productive. “Maybe you prop up a whiteboard nearby to sketch out ideas or stick a flurry of post-it notes around your desk, or keep a stack of books on a shelf to glance at,” Thompson says.

So, for those who prefer working in one environment (at home versus in office) over another, that preference may have more to do with how well they can structure their workspace than with commute times or the snacks stocked in the breakroom.

In considering your employees’ preferences, it can be helpful to drill down more deeply into why those preferences exist to determine the best mix of on- and off-site work for your staff members—as well as the drivers of their preferences.