More companies are calling their employees back to the office, with some resorting to perks like free meals and electric scooters to entice people to return.
Executives have often led the charge to return to in-person work — yet new research from Future Forum, Slack's research consortium, reveals that non-executive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to be working from the office five days a week.
Future Forum's latest findings come from its April 2022 pulse survey, which was published Tuesday morning and includes responses from over 10,000 knowledge workers in the U.S., France, Germany and other countries.
More than a third of workers (34%) have returned to the office full-time, the highest percentage since Future Forum began surveying people in June 2020. But Future Forum's research suggests that most full-time office employees aren't there on their own accord: 55% of fully in-person office workers said they would prefer a more flexible work arrangement.
So, what's driving the gap between employees and their bosses coming into the office? Brian Elliott, the executive leader of Future Forum, points to "a troubling double standard" where executives promote in-person work for their teams but prefer flexible, hybrid arrangements for themselves.
"There's a lot of 'Do as I say, not as I do' that's happening," he tells CNBC Make It. "Executives have more autonomy around their schedules than their employees, even if their organization announces return-to-office mandates."
The biggest reason behind the divide, Future Forum found, is executives' preference for hybrid or remote work, and their power to come into the office less if they choose. Another factor may be the small increase in business travel over the last few months, Elliott adds.
Return-to-office mandates are also having an adverse effect on employees' mental health. According to Future Forum, people's work-related stress and anxiety are at their highest levels since summer 2020, twice as high as executives' levels. What's more, non-executives' work-life balance scores are 40% worse than their bosses', plummeting at five times the rates of executives since November 2021.
Some companies are doubling down on return-to-office mandates to bring workers back, but such policies are having the opposite result: creating more tension and driving people to quit.
"One CEO told me they tried a three days in office, two days remote policy, but no one was showing up, so they're cranking it up to four days required in office, one day remote," Elliott says. "That kind of strict, top-down mandate doesn't help employee retention."
Future Forum found that knowledge workers with "little to no ability to set their own hours" are almost three times as likely to look for a new job this year as those with flexible work arrangements.
Women, people of color and working mothers continue to report the greatest interest in flexible schedules and work locations. About 58% of women told Future Forum they want to work in a hybrid or remote environment at least three days a week compared to 48% of men. Meanwhile, 82% of mothers said they want location flexibility, an all-time high since summer 2020.
There's no "one-size-fits-all" solution to the return-to-office debate, Elliott adds, but companies should engage employees in the planning process by asking what arrangements work best for them and allowing teams within the organization to create their own specific return-to-office agreements instead of holding everyone to the same policy.
"Most organizations, especially Fortune 500 companies, don't have a single office space — so the concept that everyone is 'coming back together' by returning to the office full-time is just a falsehood in the first place," Elliot says. "Taking a more flexible, digital-first approach means that people who are in different cities, or far from headquarters, are no longer sweating the distance to the C-suite leaders as something that will negatively impact their careers."
As an executive crafting return-to-office plans, he adds, "you need to be open to the fact that you don't have all the answers … this is a place where no one has the answer, we're all just trying to figure it out together."