The debate over whether or not to return to the office is far from settled — and yet, the push to get employees back to the office is getting more aggressive.
A whopping 90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024, according to an Aug. report from Resume Builder, which surveyed 1,000 company leaders. Nearly 30% say their company will threaten to fire employees who don't comply with in-office requirements.
Only 2% of business leaders said their company never plans to require employees to work in person.
The renewed push to end remote work comes as more CEOs openly acknowledge their disdain for the model, arguing that productivity, collaboration and employee engagement all suffer without the office.
"It's easier for executives to hold on to the old notion that people are really working if they can see them down the hall," says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry. "It's almost too hard for some leaders to comprehend a world where that option doesn't exist, or to consider a radical new approach."
Even though more companies have introduced stricter in-office requirements for employees, office occupancy has remained relatively unchanged from the past year.
During the first week of September, the average occupancy rate in offices in the top 10 cities in the US was 47.3% of pre-pandemic levels, compared to 44% this time last year, according to data from Kastle Systems.
Companies are reluctant to give up their 9-to-5 in-person schedules for "more emotional than intellectual reasons," says Kaplan.
"The message I hear from executives is, 'We never intended for the world to change this dramatically and the office to just go away,'" he says. "Then, there's the popular argument that people are less connected to their company and to their peers without the office, which is bad news for employee engagement and retention."
In a 2022 Korn Ferry survey of 15,000 global executives, two-thirds agreed that corporate culture accounts for more than 30% of their company's market value. Many leaders, the report notes, believe that a strong culture can only be established and maintained "if everyone is — at least some of the time — occupying the same workplace."
CEOs also justify their stance with the belief that workers are more productive in the office. Amazon's Andy Jassy, for example, told employees that "it's easier to learn, model, practice and strengthen our culture when we're in the office together most of the time and surrounded by colleagues."
Yet research has failed to draw definitive conclusions about remote workers' productivity. In the U.S., employee productivity rose by 4.4% in 2020 and 2.2% in 2021, before falling in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2023, however, labor productivity rose 3.7% during the second quarter, and is up 1.3% compared to this time last year.
"The individual free-for-all work policy doesn't work," says Brian Elliott, an executive advisor on flexibility and the founder of the research consortium Future Forum. "There really is some benefit to getting people together on a regular basis to drive relationship-building, mentorship and collaboration."
Per Resume Builder, the "vast majority" of business leaders say they have seen an improvement in revenue, productivity and employee retention since returning to the office.
Even as large firms on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley consider a full return to in-person work, workplace experts agree that most organizations will stick with the post-pandemic norm of spending two to three days per week in the office.
"I think the concept of spending five days a week in the office is dead," says Elliott. "That top-down, one-size-fits-all approach can lead to a lot of resentment among workers."
With that kind of mandate, "organizations are risking a real break of trust with their employees," says Susan Vroman, a lecturer in management at Bentley University.
Employees overwhelmingly prefer hybrid work: About 68% of full-time workers support a hybrid work schedule, working at least one day a week remotely and the other days in an office, a recent Bankrate survey of over 2,000 adults in the U.S. found.
Whether a company is increasing its in-office requirements, or introducing them for the first time, "transparency is key," Vroman adds. "Especially for companies who said employees could work wherever they wanted to, how do you convince them that going back to the office is the right thing to do?"
The only industries Kaplan expects to continue to push for a full return to the office are tech, financial services and retail, as leaders in those fields tend to spend more on commercial real estate and are "the most adamant" that remote work can pose security concerns.
Other companies, Vroman says, will opt for a more structured hybrid work arrangement, requiring employees to come in on certain days of the week rather than allowing them to choose the number of days they work remotely, which can lead to "people being on Zoom all day surrounded by empty desks."
Offering a flexible, hybrid model is also a smart recruiting tactic, Elliott adds. "The job market might have softened to some degree, but there's always competition for top talent," he says. "People still want flexibility at work, and they're ready to walk if they don't get it."
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