In my view, such return to work mandates are not a great idea. Working from home has three benefits:
- Saves workers the time and money of commuting,
- Lowers the risk of Covid-19 transmission — U.S. cases on August 1, at 121,400, were up 53 percent from the year before (which is understated because today’s at home tests are not widely reported as were the ones given in 2021, according to the New York Times), and
- Could enable leaders to reduce office space which would help them cut costs.
Despite my objections, business leaders are requiring people to return. While some who have been away from the office for the last several years miss working in-person with their colleagues, they may have forgotten the many annoyances of in-person work.
Here are four such annoyances and what business leaders ought to do to minimize them.
1. Refrigerator food fights.
People who work in an office bring food to work and put it in a refrigerator near their desk. While they’re not looking, co-workers steal their food without telling them. When the food’s owner confronts colleagues, they make excuses — such as the food’s owner was not clearly communicated.
This is a significant annoyance for managers. A case in point is Gary Bush, the sales manager for an auto dealership, who had to settle a dispute between two employees over “a large container of apple juice,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
The dispute was between the employee who brought the container planning to drink it later in the day and the coworker who admitted drinking most of it while disclaiming responsibility because she had failed to label it as hers, noted the Journal.
The time that Bush spent mediating this dispute could have been better spent motivating the dealer’s sales force to bring in more paying customers. To avoid refrigerator food fights, companies could give each employee a mini-refrigerator or require workers to label their food clearly before placing it in a shared fridge.
2. Microwaved food smells.
People often bring lunch into a workplace — aiming to heat it up in a microwave oven before consuming it.
Destiny Palmerin, a sales and marketing coordinator for a health-product manufacturer, told the Journal that colleagues compete for the microwave all at the same time. What’s more, the microwave often transmits an office-wide stench — such as burnt popcorn, Palmerin complained.
There are ways managers can avoid these problems. For example, they can create a shared Google Doc in which co-workers sign up for a 10 minute appointment with the microwave to avoid scheduling conflicts. What’s more, managers can locate the microwave in a room that has a door with strong ventilation to send the cooking smells out of the building.
3. Noisy cubicle farm coworkers.
Business leaders often locate people in cubicle farms — desks separated by partitions that are not high enough to block the noise generated by co-workers. Josh Ross, a tech-company support specialist, said that he is surrounded by noisy co-workers who type loudly on mechanical keyboards and audibly express their frustration.
In my view, the best solution to this problem would be to let such customer support people work from home. If that is not possible, business leaders should provide them with sound-proof spaces so that they do not have to suffer the annoyance of their co-workers’ keyboard clattering and moans of frustration.
4. Fights over air conditioning.
People have different preferences for cooling during the summer and heating during the winter. These differences create conflicts. For example, Matt Shantz, a university academic advisor, does not like air conditioning while his colleagues do. He lost the battle for no air conditioning and sometimes wears two sweaters to cope with cold air blasting him from the vent near his desk, reported the Journal.
One possible solution to thermostat wars is to designate groups of desks for people with different heating and cooling preferences. For example, all the people who like air conditioning during the summer could sit together as could those who want it off.
Business leaders who insist that people return to the office ought to iron out in-office distractions that could largely be avoided by letting people work from home. For work that requires people to be in the office together, leaders should consider my suggestions to minimize those annoyances.