Nearly two thirds of the workforce is currently under a return-to-office mandate. But as employees continue to resist (and thrive in remote environments), what's driving the push from employers?
According to an employer survey by workplace architecture firm Unispace, 72% of employers are calling workers back to the office, while another 20% "strongly recommend" a return to office. It's a vast departure from the same report from 2021, a time at which just 56% of employers anticipated a mandated return.
"Companies are navigating how to manage productivity while balancing that against what's being categorized as a really tight labor market," says Robert Boersma, head of strategy at recruiting platform Talent.com. "We're seeing some brands using the leverage that they have to pull the employees back into the office — and it's leaving others to say, 'How should I navigate this?'"
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A new Slack survey of 18,000 corporate employees found that two in three business leaders report they're under "immense pressure" to get more productivity out of their workers. That pressure has manifested as return-to-office mandates across industries: Amazon recently announced a required three in-office days per week; Disney a minimum of four days and Google three days. (Google has also suggested that long stretches outside of the office could impact an employees' performance review.)
"Fear is driving this — fear that not being in the office is contributing to dips in productivity," says Cameron Yarbrough, CEO and co-founder of Torch, a people development platform. "When fear drives decision-making, decisions usually aren't made with the facts in mind. The facts are: We don't know how much working in the office impacts productivity."
There are varying degrees of employee interest in all work styles — FlexJobs found that 65% of employees want to work remotely full-time and 32% want a hybrid work environment, while Gallup reported 6% of employees preferring in-person work. Unispace's survey found that almost half of companies with mandates now report a higher level of employee attrition than anticipated, and 29% are struggling to recruit altogether.
"While there is clear data over the past several quarters that worker productivity is going down, attributing it to WFH is, so far, an assumption," Yarborough says. "There are many studies that show that productivity has been enhanced by hybrid work rather than the opposite being the case. Many workplace leaders are looking at their numbers and instead of responding with curiosity and trying to understand what's happening in their workplace, they are reverting to something that feels comfortable because it's what they've always done."
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Data from EY found that U.S. productivity plunged 2.7% in the first quarter of this year compared to last year. Meanwhile, quarter-over-quarter output grew slightly (0.2%) and hours worked grew by 3% — which means people are working longer hours and barely putting producing more value. Forcing employees back to the office likely won't change that, according to Jane Bruce, CEO and co-founder of workplace insight platform meQuilibrium.
"I can't express how many times I've heard people complain that they've been forced back into the office only to be on Zoom calls all day," she says, "The last thing you want to do is require people to go into the office and do exactly what they would have been doing more comfortably at their home desk."
Bruce acknowledges that maintaining a remote-first business may not always be the best choice for employers. For example, some companies may be tied into lease obligations with their office buildings that have led to return-to-work mandates. But while that's an understandable commitment, without changing the employee outlook on what it means to go into the office, it could further stunt productivity.
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"Those days need to be collaboration, ideation and learning focused," she says. "When bringing people back to the office, do it to create relationships. Things like training are good for in-office efforts because it's more than filling out boxes on a monitor, there's an opportunity for learning and learning leadership. That will compel people to look forward to that two or three days a week, because they're going to get something different from that."
The solution isn't necessarily to end remote work mandates altogether, Bruce says. It's to create as much transparency and communication between employers and employees about different options so that employees feel that it's a collaborative effort.
"What companies will have to learn is to compromise," he says. "If they still want employees to come in, have it be for important meetings or have them pick their own days. When addressing these policy changes companies need to understand the reason why people have enjoyed flexibility so much and try to maintain that as much as they can."