When Will You Return To The Office?
The dynamics of tipping points are more influential than corporate policy, so likely sooner than you think!
People are trickling back into offices across Manhattan. Defying the new norm of working from home, 10% of the city’s roughly one million non-essential office workers are now back, according to a recent survey conducted by the Partnership for New York City. Depending on your current mental state, that is either cause for celebration or concern.
For most, restoring some semblance of work-life balance cannot come soon enough. For others, just the thought of cramming into subway cars and elevators induces panic. Anticipating a post-Labor Day return date, NYC and the CDC blindsided everyone with unexpected guideline updates. On May 3rd, NYC announced that most businesses would be allowed to fully reopen in mid-May. Then a week later, the CDC announced that vaccinated people can resume pre-pandemic activities without masks or social distancing.
How soon you will actually return to the office has a lot to do with your peers. And although timelines vary significantly from company to company, when your industry starts to return, a slow trickle has the potential to suddenly cascade into a flood, catching businesses and employees by surprise. That’s all thanks to the dynamics of tipping points in overturning stable societal norms. Damon Centola’s new research reveals precisely how new norms catch on and spread, offering clarity to this previously murky phenomenon.
The Rule of 25%
Social change erupts once 25% of a population embraces an idea. Until that threshold is reached, progress towards overturning an established behavior is slow and in peril of failing. But if a select group of committed adherents can convert enough people to achieve critical mass — which real-world data demonstrate is sensitive to as little as a 1% change in participation — stable norms can be effectively overturned. Then, with every new convert, the new behavior’s credibility and legitimacy increase, speeding up its adoption throughout the population. Pressure to conform eventually takes hold, persuading all but the most resistant to adopt the new behavior.
Social reinforcement from peers is critical when the real and perceived risks of adopting a new behavior are high, like returning to the office when the pandemic’s effects have not sufficiently subsided. We need social proof that the new norm, in this case, an old one in a radically changed environment, is not so risky. Organizations are no different. With employees and reputations to protect, letting others test the waters first provides the validation companies need that it is okay to ask employees to return. And if the tipping point is hit, social pressure to conform will draw companies back into the office well before their stated timelines — catching both them and their employees by surprise.
Relevance, whether you are an individual or organization, is crucial for social reinforcement. We take others’ choices more seriously when we can empathize with their commitments, concerns, and circumstances. What is perceived as relevant, however, changes from case to case. For returning to the office, data released by the Partnership for New York City points to industry and the size of a company as the most relevant characteristics. Therefore, the returning workforce should not be considered a singular group but many smaller populations, all with different trajectories. Some will return quickly, and others may never return anywhere close to their pre-pandemic numbers.
Over half of the people working in real estate are already back, with almost all expected to return by September. That should come as no surprise. Consumer products is the next highest industry with only 15% back in the office. 20% of employers with fewer than 500 employees have returned, versus only 8% with over 1,000 employees.
Reopening New York City will not be without its bumps. Understanding how your peers can hijack even the most well-intentioned plans is critical to reducing unnecessary shocks to your operations. That starts by partnering with someone who can help you identify the social dynamics that will influence your return date so that you and your employees are not caught offguard.
Bottom Line: Group behavior is far more influential than corporate policy. A trickle of returning office workers has the potential to suddenly cascade into a flood, pressuring companies to return to the office well before their stated timelines. These dynamics will also influence what hybrid approaches will actually look like. Understanding how group behaviors uniquely impact your business is critical to navigating through the next phase of reopening and what the future of work will look like at your company.
Atelier Kultur is is an organizational and behavioral design studio. We create cultures and environments in which transformative ideas can happen.