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The Great Return to Office Debate

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 led to many dramatic changes spanning all areas of society, including transforming the workplace. Prior to the pandemic, only 23% of U.S. workers whose jobs could be done remotely reported working remotely fully or the majority of the time. By October 2020, that figure jumped to 71%.

With the abatement of the pandemic, the future of remote work has now been debated. There are several schools of thought on how best to address remote work, with proponents of each across all industries and sectors. Some companies have opted to mandate workers to return to the office full time. Arguments for this stance contend that in-person interaction among employees is critical to overall collaboration and productivity, as well argue that it is unfair to employees whose jobs do not provide the option of working remotely and must be in person to complete. A surprising number of tech companies, an industry traditionally known for flexibility in its workplaces and a higher percentage of remote workers than other industries, have taken this approach including Apple, Meta and Twitter. This approach threatens the greatest risk to employee satisfaction and can lead to backlash, with 73% of remote workers reporting that a mandate to return to the office full or majority time would be a major impetus for seeking employment elsewhere. Indeed, recent survey data indicates that many companies that initially mandated a return to office have softened or fully reversed those mandates in response to backlash among employees.

Other companies are embracing the shift to remote work and using it as a measure to cut overhead. By reducing headcount of employees who are required to be physically in office, companies are able to reduce their real estate footprint for office space, at lower costs. The number of companies taking this approach remains small, with only 3% of companies reporting their intention to transform their workforce to fully remote for all positions. This approach also poses a risk to employee satisfaction as many employees report preferring to work in the office and that their productivity and satisfaction is greater working in office rather than from home.

The most common practice is adopting a hybrid approach. These companies recognize the need to be flexible to employee needs as well as still supporting business performance. There are several approaches to hybrid policies taking shape. Many companies are taking an approach of allowing workers to work remotely as needed, but requiring they come into the office 1-2 days a week to promote collaboration. While some companies have moved away from having large central offices for all employees and instead establish a geographically central satellite offices with shared workspaces. This allows employees to work remotely, but meet in person as needed, while also reducing a company’s footprint and overhead.

It will take time for the workplace to sort itself out and companies to determine which approach is best, but those that are flexible to employee needs as well as still supporting business requirements are likely to see the best results.