In recent years, remote work has dominated job postings, giving employees flexibility and autonomy over when and where they work. However, this fall marks a significant shift as 1 million workers at major organizations are being asked to return to the office at least part-time. And 50 percent of leaders will require employees to return to the office five days a week.

Reasons leaders want employees back onsite

A WFH Research study reported that as of July, 59 percent of full-time workers are 100 percent onsite, 29 percent are hybrid, and 12 percent are remote. Even Zoom, the video conferencing tech company that helped millions of people work from home during the pandemic, has asked its employees to work in person. Here’s a list of major organizations requiring workers to return to the office. Why do leaders want more of their workforce back in the office?

  • Desire for more face-to-face communication and collaboration: Many leaders believe that direct in-person interactions are more effective for building relationships, collaborating, and managing teams. This stems from the belief that physical presence fosters a deeper connection between workers and learning among peers. Additionally, executives feel in-person interactions provide an environment where spontaneous discussions, brainstorming sessions, and impromptu problem-solving can occur. According to Sanford’s research, physically present teams generate 15 to 20 percent more ideas than remote teams solving the same problem, and these in-person ideas tend to be more innovative. Such collaboration improves product quality by 34 percent and increases sales by 27 percent, impacting a company’s financial performance.
  • Weakened corporate culture: 76 percent of HR leaders are concerned that hybrid work impacts employees’ connection to corporate culture, resulting from decreased in-person interactions and spontaneous conversations that foster relationship-building and collaboration. Executives worry that reduced face-to-face communication could lead to misunderstandings, decreased transparency, and isolation among remote employees, ultimately impacting the shared values and sense of unity that underpin a strong organizational culture. Additionally, the physical workspace often represents culture, and leaders fear that the shift away from a shared office environment could lead to detachment from the cultural norms and the organization’s established identity.
  • Concern about decreased productivity: A driving factor behind the desire of leaders to have employees return to the office is the apprehension about productivity. Many executives are concerned that they cannot supervise remote workers as effectively as they can employees in a physical office setting. In fact, 85 percent of leaders find it more challenging to have faith in their employees’ productivity when they are not in the office, creating productivity paranoia. This apprehension stems from the worry that employees might exhibit lower productivity levels or exploit the remote environment.
  • Lack of trust: The absence of trust creates a significant barrier to successfully implementing and maintaining remote and hybrid work models. Compared to in-person managers, 49 percent of hybrid workplace managers struggle to trust their employees to do their best. Building trust requires continuous effort and a commitment to fostering a culture of transparency, open communication, and mutual respect.
  • Cost of office space: 29 percent of companies with over 5,000 employees cite real estate conditions—including unutilized office space and lease commitments—as motivating factors for urging employees to return to the office.

Managers are getting caught in the middle

Among Fortune 500 CEOs, 34 percent expect employees to be onsite at least four days and 40 percent three days a week. Yet, only 3 percent of employees want to work full-time at the office. Over 50 percent of managers perceive a disconnect between leadership and employees and are caught in the middle, challenged to balance these contrasting preferences. In fact, 74 percent of managers acknowledge their limitations in driving positive changes for their employees due to a lack of authority or resources.

Encouraging employees to return to the office

Companies are implementing various strategies to encourage workers to return to the office. Some of these strategies include:

  • Offering true flexibility: Hybrid work arrangements are better embraced by employees when the frequency of their in-office days is not tracked weekly or monthly. Situations may arise when spending more time in the office benefits an employee during a specific month. Conversely, when such a presence is unnecessary, employees anticipate their employer to echo their flexibility, granted they uphold the required job performance criteria. Spotify’s Work From Anywhere program allows employees to choose where they work best–home, office, or elsewhere.
  • Implementing a 4-day work week: Companies like Amazon and Microsoft have implemented a 4-day work week where workers receive the same pay for finishing the same amount of work in less time, providing employees with enhanced work-life balance and flexibility.
  • Improving health and wellbeing amenities: Walmart is working to improve the quality of life in the workplace by offering a fitness center, three pools, and a childcare facility at its new campus in Arkansas.
  • Relaxing the dress code: During the pandemic, employees got used to working in comfortable clothing. To encourage workers to return to the office, manufacturer Milliken & Company implemented a “dress for your day” policy on days they don’t have client meetings.
  • Focusing on pet perks: Nearly 1 in 5 households adopted a pet during the pandemic and became accustomed to spending entire days at home with their furry companions. To get these workers to return to the office and leave their pets at home, companies like SelfMade offer a yearly pet care stipend to help offset the costs of walking services, pet-sitting, daycare, and boarding.
  • Making charitable donations: Salesforce donated $10 to a local charity each day a worker came to the office over two weeks.
  • Providing complimentary breakfast and lunch: Arrivia, a travel rewards and loyalty platform, offered fresh fruit, breakfast, and healthy lunch days for employees who worked from the office to encourage shared conversation over a meal.
  • Tracking attendance: JP Morgan tracked attendance by feeding badge swipe data into reports and dashboards monitored by managers.  
  • Imposing discipline and termination: Apple told employees they could be disciplined or terminated if they did not return to the office at least three days a week. 

The bottom line

Despite their efforts, 73 percent of organizations struggle to get workers to return to the workplace, and 71 percent mandating onsite work have difficulty retaining employees. Why? Only 28 percent of employees feel their company makes it worthwhile to come into the office.

By listening to employees, understanding their concerns, involving them in decision-making, and offering meaningful resources and solutions, employers can create a phased and more successful transition back to the office environment. To determine the best course, conduct surveys or hold open forums where workers can express their concerns, preferences, and challenges regarding returning to the office. Recognize that employees may have varying reasons for hesitation or discomfort. The best approach may be to offer tailored solutions to address these concerns.

This blog was authored by Sarah Garcia

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