There’s a plague of cognitive dissonance sweeping boardrooms as around the world leaders plan their approach to the future of work.

By hook or by crook, many seem determined to return to “normal” and require employees to return to the office.

Some leaders are selecting the stick over the carrot. Apple CEO Tim Cook is facing a spirited backlash after he shared the company’s plans to require employees to be in the office three days a week, on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. In his letter to employees, Cook said he “missed the hum of activity” and surmised that he “is not alone.”

Apple employees reacted swiftly, and are garnering headlines worldwide with their response, which was first reported by The Verge and is well worth a read.

In particular, the letter says employees have “often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,” and “there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

What employees like about working from home 

As of this writing, this situation is still evolving. However, the points made in the employees’ letter mirror the sentiments about remote work that multiple surveys have surfaced, namely that employees perceive they are more productive working from home, they value the flexibility working from home provides, and they appreciate the ability to recapture the time and expenses associated with commuting.

Importantly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that employees who prefer remote work value it to the degree that they will leave a job that requires them to return to the workplace.

While Apple’s leadership is using the stick to bring its employees back to the office, other companies are using the carrot – and in some cases, they are making huge investments in their workspaces in an attempt to lure workers back.

According to Raconteur, firms are adding in-house gyms, steam rooms, reading rooms, yoga studios, sleep pods, game rooms, and cinemas to their workspaces. One is even crowning its roof with a forest.

It’s worth noting that despite the enviable perks many Silicon Valley employees enjoyed prior to the pandemic, such as free gourmet meals, free gym memberships, on-site massages, and other unique benefits, those same employees (including the Apple cohort) are expressing preferences for working remotely — calling into question the effectiveness and the wisdom of investment in dramatic revamps of office space.

Indeed, the same Raconteur article sites a survey in which fewer than 10% of employees surveyed said they wanted to be back working at HQ on a full-time basis – and 31% said they would happily never set foot in the office again.

The ROI of return to work perks depends in part upon the culture

Even if companies are successful in bringing employees back to work, the question of whether the return to work perks they are designing will outweigh the benefits of working from home that employees have come to value. Working parents, for example, are unlikely to hang out after work at the company cinema.

A designer quoted by Raconteur is blunt in his assessment of the value of quirky office perks.

“I’ve seen an office with a golf course in the middle of it that doesn’t get used. Such things are great for attracting talent, but they do nothing for retention,” said Dominic Dugan, director at design firm Oktra.

The degree to which additions like sleep pods and yoga studios benefit the bottom line largely depends upon company culture. Take naps, for example. An article from the Wall St. Journal contemplates the fate of the naps remote workers have enjoyed:

“In a survey of 2,000 employees working from home conducted by career and jobs website Zippia in late April last year, 33% said they took naps while working from home. Yet while dozens of studies have shown the benefits of taking naps, such as increased alertness, stigma about napping at the office endures.”

The investment in sleep pods will only pay off if employees can use them without stigma.

Finding the workplace strategy that’s best for a business needs to start first and foremost with employees, as both the carrot and stick approaches outlined above carry with them a significant risk of failure. Leaders should set aside their assumptions, personal preferences, and “the way we’ve always done it” and focus on business outcomes. Many organisations have enjoyed strong performance during lockdown, proving that working from home truly can work for their businesses – due in part to the benefits of remote work that employees value. As the letter from Apple employees underscores, people are unwilling to give up a model of working they like – and that has been proven to work – just because the boss misses seeing people in the office.

Additionally, in their letter to their CEO, Apple employees said, “We are formally requesting a company-wide recurring short survey with a clearly structured and transparent communication / feedback process at the company-wide level, organization-wide level, and team-wide level.”

Involving employees in planning your company’s workplace strategy, and inviting them to help solve the challenges remote working poses for your business, will be beneficial in terms of effective solutions and employee buy-in.

Illustration by Alan O’Rourke