In recent research reported by BambooHR, those work-from-home employees who have been asked to return to the company office are disappointed in what they're finding. In a survey of 1,000 adult workers, 37 percent said "they felt worse in the office than even at their lowest point in the pandemic." What were returning employees hoping for and what did they get instead? The responses highlighted three specific expectations:

Culture.

An overwhelming majority (79 percent) said their company's culture (a key justification for having everyone back together in the office) hasn't improved since they got to see colleagues in person. This corresponds with recent research I've done on work pride that found no significant difference between how much pride an employee had in their company whether they worked in the office or from home. In fact, those working from home expressed slightly more pride in their company than those who worked from the company's office. Perhaps they felt more pride in their company because it trusted them enough to allow them to work from home?

A company's culture -- the unspoken rules of how everyone in the organization works together -- is critical, but the evidence is thin that culture is confined to a physical place. I'm convinced work has become a state of mind more than a place to be. As such, if you have the right state of mind, including motivation and support, you can likely work from anywhere. 

Collaboration.

The study also found that "61 percent hoped for more in-person collaboration" -- another supposed major benefit of having everyone back to the office -- "but only 49 percent actually reported experiencing" more collaboration. This reminded me of a colleague I know who works for Google and was encouraged to commute from downtown San Francisco to Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California (an hour-plus commute each way) "for greater in-person collaboration." He says that now, back in the office, he spends most of his time speaking on the phone to colleagues in other buildings on Google's campus, with few, if any, in-person meetings.

Collaboration is a function of specific actions between individuals who work together, and again, is not determined by physical location so much as necessity, intention, and access. While physical proximity can impact ease of collaboration, it certainly is not a prerequisite for collaboration to occur.

Productivity.

Over 50 percent expected their productivity to go up after returning to the office, but nearly two-thirds have reported that hasn't been the case. This should come as no surprise since the case for greater productivity while working from home has been well-established. In informal research I did with those I managed several decades ago, in which I asked everyone to log their time and activity, those working from home were almost twice as productive. In a more recent study, 40 percent of workers who worked from home reported they were more productive than they previously had been when working in the office.

What Are People Thinking?

Face it, most people prefer to work from home if given the chance. The simple comforts of being in one's own home and the flexibility to organize their day around both work and personal priorities is a powerful draw -- not even counting the saved time they gain in not having to commute each day.

This is definitely true for older workers, who are less interested in returning to in-person workplaces (33 percent of Gen-Xers and 41 percent of Baby Boomers said they preferred working from home), while younger employees report being slightly more interested in returning to in-person workplaces (28 percent of Millennials and 27 percent of Gen-Zers reported being interested in full-time remote work).

However, there is a disconnect between how the topic of remote work is viewed by different levels of the organization. While 43 percent of rank-and-file employees believe that the majority of people at the company want to work remotely full-time, only 32 percent of managers feel the same way, and just 22 percent of vice-presidents agreed with this sentiment, which assures that the topic will continue to be an issue of debate in organizations for the foreseeable future.

We've all heard the sayings "You can't go home again" and "You can't step in the same river twice." We should add to those truisms, "Work is work, no matter where you do it." The workplace has changed, and there's no going back to how it used to be.