The ‘Slacker’ Debate, Part 2

As some leaders target July for a return to the workplace, the debate over whether people are more productive at home or in the office is heating up.

Are people who want to work in the office the real slackers?

With many companies now targeting a return to the office after early July, the debate over whether people are more productive at home or on-site is growing more heated. Nearly 85% of leaders in a recent survey say they want employees back in the office, with some labeling remote workers as less engaged and lacking hustle. On the flip side, however, proponents of remote work say it’s the office that promotes slacking, with socializing, impromptu meetings, coffee breaks, and other distractions taking focus away from actual work.

“Pop-in chats” are a huge drain on productivity, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “A lot of office conversation has little to do with people’s actual work,” he says. Indeed, gossip and coworkers dropping by are frequently cited as huge distractions in the office. A well-known study in 2012, for instance, found that office workers get interrupted every 11 minutes, which increases stress and doubles their rate of mistakes.

But many leaders have a distinctly different view. They say those impromptu chats build camaraderie and foster corporate culture, and also lead to more collaboration and innovation among teams and between departments. “The office is more conducive to building cross-functional work relationships,” says Andy De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president of human resources for the Americas. Moreover, for junior and mid-level staff, the office is critical for training, education, and having different day-to-day work experiences and face-to-face access to managers.

To be sure, the debate over where people are most productive isn’t new—a Google search for “productivity in office versus working from home” returns 245 million results. In the aftermath of the pandemic, however, employees are feeling more empowered about leaving or not taking a job that isn’t open to at least a hybrid office-home work schedule. As shown in a Korn Ferry poll posted on LinkedIn that generated more than 1,400 responses, the issue has become more divisive than ever. The difference between people who think remote workers are less engaged versus those who think they are more productive was just 9%.

Nathan Blain, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader for optimizing people costs, says leaders are under the likely mistaken impression that bringing people back to the office will flip a switch on productivity. Based on conversations with clients, Blain says what the majority saw in the initial shift to remote work was a major decline in productivity, which then rose steadily as everyone got settled into their new surroundings. He envisions a similar dynamic playing out in returning to the office. “The only way an organization is going to know whether productivity is better at home or at the office is by measuring output effectively,” he says.

For some roles, that could mean revenue generated per employee; for others, it could be the number of people trained per week. “You have to measure what’s working and what’s not working and make adjustments to the remote/at-office policy based on the data,” says Blain.