Are you and your team returning to the office full-time? The numbers say you are, but I don’t believe it. Oh, I know you’re supposed to be back in the office at least four days a week. But is that what’s happening?

According to a recent study by Resume Builder, 90% of companies will require people to work back in the office. And by the end of this year, most of those will be full time. This is not surprising.

When companies started returning to the office, they compromised with their employees. “You can work from home sometimes, but we need you in the office at least 2-3 days a week.” Gradually, these days expanded. Now, many companies have gone (back?) to four days in the office and one day remote “if you want.”

It sounds like the remote work zealots lost the war, and things are returning to pre-pandemic levels. But are they? The number of people working mostly remotely before 2020 was 25%. Today, it is just over 30%. More people work remotely, but it’s still an in-office world.

Odds are, you’d find a lot of empty desks at companies that have gone “back to the office.” That’s because of the rise of what many call “back door remote.” You see, in a lot of companies, there’s an official policy, and then there’s what’s really happening.

The Same But Different

There are two ways of looking at this. The official version is that some people have earned the right to work away from the office. Remote work is considered a perk. It’s allowed because you’ve demonstrated the ability to get work done and basically, the boss trusts and likes you.

This policy is both understandable and slightly coercive. It presumes you can’t be trusted until you’ve proven it. As such, the privilege of working more flexibly can be yanked away anytime. That’s a little old school, but at least it’s honest.

The second scenario is far more likely. Employees officially agreed to come back to the office, but are taking every possible opportunity to work remotely. This was happening before Covid (we called it Stealth Remote back then). But the numbers are astronomically higher now that people have experienced working remotely. On paper, people work in an office with their teammates. But if a child is sick, or you have to finish that project deadline without interruption, or it snowed and you don’t want to risk your life, or it’s Thursday, you just tell people you’re working from home.

Managers tend to allow this for a lot of reasons. Some are business oriented: “We don’t want people to quit over the in-office policy. As long as productivity continues, who cares?” Some of the reasons are less honorable: “The boss doesn’t feel like fighting about it. Or he secretly supports more remote work and is technically enforcing the policy while looking the other way at the scofflaws.”

What’s the Big Deal?

When the organization adheres to the stated policy, they can plan accordingly. You can train people to fit the company culture and processes. Work isn’t negatively impacted because people know where their teammates are and what they’re doing. Location aside, the best systems work when everyone’s playing by the same set of rules and assumptions.

Allowing policies to be worked around in an ad hoc fashion makes it harder to lead effectively. There are cries of favoritism: “Why does Rob get to work from home, and I have to come in?” Teammates don’t always know who is where, which can slow down collaboration and teamwork. It also sends the not-so-subtle message that company policies are just suggestions. Bend them to suit your needs - as long as nobody gets wise to it.

Back Door Remote runs a very real risk of being abused by both leaders and employees. Repeated abuse can corrode trust in the organization. Better to be up front about the policies and then adhere to them. If there’s that much resistance to them, perhaps it’s time to reexamine your in-office policy.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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