BCG Henderson Institute

This fall, companies are once again pushing workers to return to the office, continuing the debate over how many days employees should work together in person.

This debate continues to miss the point.

One-size-fits-all mandates can succeed only if work is a universal task executed by a homogenous workforce. Of course, we know neither is true. Instead of threatening employees, CEOs should empower and enable their managers — especially those on the front line — to gain a deep and nuanced understanding of the work their teams do, the working style of their team members, and how that work best gets done. They must also consider the impact of generative AI, which will change all of these factors.

Our research, experience working with company leaders, and surveys of workers around the world show how considering these factors can lead to better outcomes for everyone.

Companies Are at a Crossroads

We can empathize with CEOs. Leaders must justify office rents despite record-low occupancy levels and build a culture of collaboration in a place with empty halls. They are grappling with quiet quitting, quiet cutting, pressure from city governments to restore the vibrance of business districts, and the impact of generative AI.

But the answer to these pressures is not return-to-office mandates that essentially use face time as a performance management tool — think badge-swipe monitoring, which has elicited notable backlash. Monitoring the time employees spend online doesn’t work, either. A recent survey of 18,149 desk workers and executives conducted by Slack revealed that 32% of employees’ time is spent on performative work, and 63% try to keep their status active online even if they’re not working at that moment.

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