Why Leaders Find It So Hard to Accept Remote Work

3 min read

At the start of COVID-19, companies around the world undertook a rapid transition to remote work. Three years later, many of the same companies have begun calling workers back to the office, leading some journalists to argue that the golden age of remote work is coming to an end.

For many leaders, the main argument against remote work is based on productivity – recent surveys found that most managers believe workers are less productive when they are at home (instead of at the office).

Is this belief true? It depends on who you ask. Several studies have examined the effects of remote work on productivity, and the results are mixed. Some studies find that remote teams are more productive, while other studies find that remote teams are less productive. So far there is no clear-cut effect (positive or negative) of remote work on productivity.

Given the weak evidence against remote work, why are so many managers skeptical? To understand the resistance to remote work, it’s important to understand how people reason about uncertainty. Three common cognitive biases may make leaders reluctant to accept remote work as a permanent arrangement:

1. Ambiguity Aversion

People generally prefer known risks over unknown risks, even when they have the same expected value. This finding is called ambiguity aversion. Remote work may seem like an unknown risk for managers who have spent most of their careers working in traditional in-office environments. Lack of familiarity (even after a few years) means that remote work arrangements are likely to be perceived as more ambiguous (and therefore less desirable) for organizations. If a leader has twenty years of experience in a traditional office and three years of experience with remote work, the traditional office will seem like a safer bet (even if the two approaches produce comparable results).

2. Social Distance

Social distance refers to our tendency to like and trust individuals who are physically closer to us. For better or worse, people are more likely to trust their immediate neighbors than individuals who live far away. People prefer partners who are physically close over partners who are physically distant because they assume (often inaccurately) that close partners are more honest and trustworthy. Remote work arrangements interfere with the way that trust normally develops in teams and organizations, giving managers less confidence in the productivity of employees.

3. The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy refers to the tendency to stay with a course of action once you have already invested in it. When people make decisions that turn out poorly, they tend to double down on the costly decisions they’ve already made (rather than change their minds). Many organizations have invested in physical office spaces. For these companies, accepting remote work as a permanent state means accepting those office spaces as “sunk costs,” something that leaders are generally reluctant to do.

Taken together, these three processes show how for many leaders the psychological scales are likely to be tipped against remote work arrangements. But to date, there’s limited evidence to suggest that leaders should bring workers back to the office. So leaders weighing these decisions should reflect on how these judgments might be shaped by common cognitive biases.

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