Return to Office: Is It a Good Idea for Companies?

Mandatory office attendance remains a controversial topic.

Written by Jeff Rumage
Published on Mar. 21, 2024
Return to Office: Is It a Good Idea for Companies?
Image: Shutterstock

With pandemic lockdowns in the rear-view mirror, organizations have asked employees to return to the office — which hasn’t been an easy sell for workers who have grown accustomed to the flexibility and autonomy of remote work.

In some cases, employees have responded to return-to-office mandates with petitions, walkouts and resignations. According to one study from interior design firm Unispace, 42 percent of companies that have instituted return-to-office mandates have witnessed higher employee turnover than they anticipated.

And while many bosses regret how they handled their initial return-to-office policies, the debate rages on, with businesses continuing to puzzle over the best way to balance their employees’ desire for flexibility with the benefits of in-office collaboration.

 

What Does a ‘Return to Office’ Mean?

‘Return to office’ (RTO) is a policy that says employees who have been working remotely should come back and work from the company’s physical office location.

While some companies have returned to the office five days a week, more companies — particularly those in the tech industry — have opted for a hybrid model that requires two or three days per week in the office.
 

Free Guide: Embracing the Hybrid Future

Use this guide to overcome common hybrid work challenges and optimize your hybrid work structure to meet your talent needs.

 

Why Are Return-to-Office Policies Controversial?

In the eyes of some workers, companies that have reversed course on their work-from-anywhere policies are breaking commitments they made in the wake of the pandemic. And for many workers, this means they now have to either endure a longer commute, or move — just as they were getting used to a fully remote lifestyle. According to a Stanford University analysis of payroll data, employees’ mean distance from the office increased from 10 miles in 2019 to 27 miles in 2023.

With fully remote work, employees were freed from the time and expense of commuting, and they could also flex their hours to go to a doctor’s appointment or pick up their child after school.

“Employees really don’t like [RTO requirements], and it’s not just because they’re resentful,” Kristi Leimgruber, a behavioral scientist at coaching company BetterUp, told Built In. “It’s because they’re spending money to commute, they’re spending time commuting and they’re still working the same amount of time — and in a lot of cases, they’re being much less productive.”

Not all employees want to play ball: About 20 percent of employees don’t comply with hybrid configurations, according to a Stanford study, and more than half don’t comply with five-day office requirements. In response, some companies have taken a harder line, tracking office attendance through badge swipes and incorporating that data into performance reviews. This could become a growing trend; one study of 800 business leaders found 80 percent of companies plan to track in-office attendance in 2024. 

Employees have sometimes bristled against these attendance requirements. More than half of hybrid workers said they “coffee badge,” or make a short office appearance before returning home to work. 

For other employees, it has been a push for them to jump ship. In a survey of 557 workers that recently returned to the office, 18 percent said they are looking for a new job and 36 percent said they plan to look for a new job in 2024. About 43 percent of respondents said return-to-office requirements were motivating their job search.

Doug Dennerline, the CEO of remote-first software company Betterworks, predicts companies instituting in-office requirements may see unwanted turnover when the job market starts to tilt more in employees’ favor. 

“W​​hen people have the opportunity to go, they’re going to go,” Dennerline told Built In. “If people have the option to have flexibility in their life versus not, they’re going to choose flexibility every time.”

Related ReadingRemote Work Is Great for DEI. Here’s Why.

 

Isn’t Hybrid Work a Good Compromise?

While some companies have faced backlash for their return-to-office mandates, studies show that hybrid work is popular with employees. A Gallup survey found 60 percent of employees prefer hybrid work, 30 percent want to work from home, and 10 percent want to come to the office five days a week. A FlexJobs survey found 47 percent of respondents prefer remote work and 49 percent prefer hybrid work.

Hybrid work is often seen as a favorable compromise between remote work and a full-time office return, as it defrays the time and cost of commuting and offers several remote days for heads-down productivity, Leimgruber said. According to BetterUp research, hybrid work also fosters a greater sense of belonging than both full-time office and remote work configurations.

Still, some of the most contentious in-office mandates in the return-to-office debate are three-day-a-week hybrid arrangements — which suggests that hybrid work is not a surefire solution to the return-to-office debate.

Related ReadingWant People to Return to the Office? Focus on Relationships.

 

Why Are Companies Mandating a Return to Office?

While the percentage of workers returning to the office has largely flatlined, a Resume Builder survey suggests the return-to-office trend still has room for growth. According to the survey, 51 percent of companies with office space currently require in-office work, and another 39 percent plan to require office attendance by the end of 2024. Here’s why:
 

Collaboration Benefits

Most companies that announce return-to-office plans want to boost collaboration and create opportunities for connection. When teams work together in an office, they can share ideas spontaneously, without organizing a video call. They might overhear a problem another person is working on and offer their input, which is something that might not happen in a remote environment. These serendipitous moments — sometimes called “accidental collisions” — can often lead to creativity and innovation, Laura Putnam, founder of Motion Infusion and author of Workplace Wellness That Works, told Built In.

 

Relational Benefits

Office environments allow coworkers to get to know each other. Even if it’s just idle chit-chat between meetings or going out to lunch with each other, in-person experiences act as “the social glue” to establishing trusting relationships, Putnam said. “The truth of the matter is that it’s really hard to develop that level of connection if you’re not together in person.”

Remote workers have a lower sense of belonging, according to BetterUp research, and are 67 percent more lonely than their in-office counterparts, according to a 2003 research paper.

 

Productivity Benefits

Many companies believe their workers are more productive when in a physical office environment. But data on the subject is largely unclear. Both remote work advocates and in-office advocates have found studies to boost their side of the case. 

For example, an IT services company saw productivity drop 8 to 19 percent when it shifted to remote work at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2013, however, a Chinese travel agency saw a 13 percent productivity increase with remote work. Economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, meanwhile, haven’t found a productivity impact from remote work.

Perceptions about productivity often vary by perspective. A Microsoft study found 87 percent of workers feel more productive working from home, while only 12 percent of leaders say they have full confidence that their team is productive — a phenomenon the study describes as “productivity paranoia.”

A Stanford study offers another possible explanation for this disconnect: Employees might accomplish the same amount of work from home without spending, on average, 65 minutes on commuting and grooming. The worker sees this as a more productive use of their time, whereas their manager likely doesn’t factor in these morning routines as part of their employee’s workday.

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business found that companies with return-to-office mandates have not seen an improvement in their financial performance. The researchers argue that such mandates are primarily a means for managers to reassert control over employees and use remote employees as a scapegoat for poor company performance.

Related ReadingWant Employees Back in the Office? Embrace Flexibility

 

What Employers Should Consider When Returning to Office

While return-to-office initiatives have advantages and disadvantages for workers and employers alike, one of the most important aspects of an RTO plan seems to be the way in which it’s implemented. Here are a few strategies to consider:
 

Listen to Employees

If you are thinking about requiring employees back to the office, try to get a handle on how the news would be received. HR leaders could ask managers what their team’s reaction would be, or managers could ask their team what they think. Some companies have conducted employee surveys for this topic, but employees will probably not be happy if leaders ask for their opinion only to ignore their feedback.

By listening to employees, companies can also understand what they can do to help employees make the transition. Many companies have eased the transition back to the office by offering free lunch or a stipend to offset the cost of commuting, childcare or pet care.

Managers should also find ways to support employees through this transition. When an employee has a manager that listens to them and supports them, they are more likely to feel engaged, trusting and psychological safe during the transition back to the office, according to BetterUp research.

 

Adjust to Each Team’s Needs

Instead of making a broad-sweeping office requirement for all employees, Dennerline suggests listening to the needs of individual teams about whether office participation helps their work or hinders their work. Betterworks, for example, is a remote-first company, but it has found that its sales development team benefits from learning sales techniques and role-playing sales conversations three days a week in the company’s New York City office. But what works for the sales development team may not be helpful for employees in other business functions, Dennerline said.

 

Beware of Proximity Bias

If you plan to bring local employees back to the office, make sure that remote employees don’t feel out of the loop or left behind. Be aware of the potential for proximity bias, which is when managers subconsciously favor employees who are in the office. They might find it easier to turn to in-office employees for gathering input, participating in special projects and taking on larger opportunities — simply because in-office employees are more visible than their remote counterparts. This is not only an unfair management practice, but it will also hurt a company’s ability to recruit and retain employees from a nationwide or global talent pool.

 

Be Intentional About Your Space and Schedule

The makeup of your workforce may look different than it did in 2019. You might have hired more remote employees, existing employees might have moved and some teams may feel like they work better remotely.

If that’s the case, you might want to move out of your office and into a shared office space arrangement. By offloading pricey real estate obligations, companies can sometimes save millions of dollars.

You might also want to consider what type of hybrid work is most conducive to your team. While most companies have opted for two or three in-office days per week, some companies might only meet in-person once a week or once a month. Even remote-first companies find value in getting together for in-person retreats a few times throughout the year.

 

Create Opportunities for Collaboration

Many workers have felt frustrated by promises of collaboration and team-building only to return to their cubicle and take meetings over Zoom as if they’re still at home. This level of disconnect can have disproportionately negative impacts, Leimgruber said, causing employees to feel less engaged and trustful toward the company.

“You can’t just give that as an explanation and expect that people will accept it and that all of a sudden innovation and collaboration will occur,” she added.

Instead of just requiring employees back to the office, company leaders should think about what they hope to achieve from bringing employers back to the office. If they want to spur more collaboration and connection, they should be intentionally designing office days to include in-person meetings, brainstorming sessions or professional development opportunities.

Related ReadingHow Smarter Benefits Can Help Curb Return-to-Office Anxiety

 

Free Guide: Embracing the Hybrid Future

Use this guide to overcome common hybrid work challenges and optimize your hybrid work structure to meet your talent needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

For the most part, companies where work can be done remotely have either remained fully remote or have implemented hybrid solutions with a combination of at-home and in-office work. Some companies, particularly in sectors like finance and law, have asked employees to fully return to the office.

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