Who would have guessed that a return to the office would still be so fraught with controversy and contention three years after the pandemic onset? A recent survey by Slack found that only 12% of people would choose to be in the office full-time. Yet, it seems that more employers every day insist on a return to the office ultimatum. Is it true? Will we all need to say goodbye to remote or hybrid work?
The Truth Behind Return to the Office News
CNBC recently reported that 50% of companies want workers to return to the office five days a week. The research from Microsoft also found 85% of leaders view the shift to hybrid work as a challenge to productivity.
We smelled something fishy with these findings, so we dug a little deeper.
Recent survey data from The Conference Board seems more in line with what we’ve observed in the field. The survey of 1,100 corporate executives from around the globe revealed that the strict return-to-office mandates of companies such as Amazon, Disney, and Starbucks represent the exception, not the rule. A few financial companies, starting with Goldman Sachs, now require a full-time return to the office—but they are few and far between.
“In fact, of the CEOs from the U.S., a puny 3% indicated they would decrease the availability of remote work in their companies,” Fortune reports from the findings.
Hybrid is Where It’s At
Slack has found that “the vast majority of global knowledge workers (72%) prefer a hybrid arrangement that combines the home and office. Workers are far less enthusiastic about going all-in on one environment: Only 12% would prefer working from the office all the time, and 13% want to work from home full-time.”
Many employers remain happy with hybrid arrangements, too. Some of the more controversial news about a return to the office are, in fact, about hybrid arrangements. Take Apple’s, for example.
“Apple, like most companies, shifted to remote work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its policies changed on a regular basis in response to COVID-19 data, but almost a year ago, it began a transitional ‘hybrid’ return to in-person work. The plan started with Apple requiring in-person work one day per week and gradually expanded to two days per week. As of last September, the policy requires in-person work at least three days per week,” reports 9to5Mac.
Bloomberg reports that, amid a second round of sweeping layoffs, Meta Platforms Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg is now encouraging staff to “find more opportunities to work with your colleagues in person.”
What’s the Problem?
So, if you’re OK with hybrid, and your employer is OK with hybrid, what’s gone wrong? It seems to be a breakdown in communication, monitoring and enforcement. Each area, when amiss, can cause anxiety, confusion, and discontentment.
Case in point: According to Platformer’s Zoë Schiffer, Apple is closely monitoring attendance via badge records to ensure employees are coming to the office at least three times per week. Of course, that’s making workers uneasy.
Check out Fortune’s latest headlines on the subject, and you’ll see the areas of discontent:
- The forced return to the office could be fueling the rise of labor unions
- Layoffs, burnout, return-to-office wars: There’s never been a worse time to be a middle manager
- Bosses say coming into the office improves culture and productivity. A new study proves them wrong
- Hybrid workers are exercising and sleeping more, reporting better mental health than before the pandemic
The HT Group is a good example of a midsize company that has embraced remote and hybrid work since the pandemic while addressing these potential pitfalls. Communication has been the key to making it work, says The HT Group President Chad Macy.
“For teams that are fully or partially remote, we encourage daily video meetings and consistent internal chats. If you want to talk to someone, video them,” he explains, adding that, for those who can come into the office, they are encouraged to do so on overlapping days. “We will try to provide lunch on days when everyone is in the office. We also plan regular team-building events and monthly ‘kudos’ celebrations to keep our culture strong.”
He adds that while the hybrid approach has made training more challenging and has reduced serendipitous collaboration, the pros have been plentiful.
“We’re less geographically tied to where we hire, which has also allowed us to keep employees who move away for personal reasons,” he says. Plus, he adds, how work gets done has changed for the better. “We are more focused on the end result versus the exact schedule each person is working to achieve that success. In fact, work productivity has increased for those who are self-motivated.”
Can You Refuse?
Alas, however, not every employer “gets it.” If you and your employer don’t see eye-to-eye on the return to the office plan, our tips from during the pandemic still stand: If you’re part of a protected class and need reasonable accommodations, you may be able to still work from home. Otherwise, you may need to ask for more or better communication or consideration. Check out these employer tips we posted previously, which may give you a better idea of how to approach your employer or manager about your concerns.
And, yes, an employer can require employees to work either in the office or in a facility. Will you be fired if you don’t comply? It’s possible. In the recent past, the bigger concern was employers being worried that workers would quit if they were forced back. A 2022 study found that nearly 7 in 10 employees (68%) would rather look for a new job than return to the office. But, in this time of tech (and other) layoffs, with the job market again tightening, the concern is weighing on many workers’ minds instead. Rumors abound that doubling down on a return to the office—and weeding out those who refuse—has become a way to “quiet fire” employees (or get them to quit) as they face shedding staff anyway. But that’s all speculation. Comments like Zuckerberg’s that tie layoffs with encouraging a return to the office seem to support the theory, though.
As Mikaela Kiner, CEO of Seattle HR consulting firm Reverb, tells Fast Company, “If companies are asking people to come back with no particular reason—or with no evidence that in-person work improves productivity or creativity—then they may in fact be trying to flex their muscle.”
Weigh the pros and cons of meeting their terms, ask questions, and try not to panic—even if you’re in tech.
“While Big Tech companies aren’t hiring, tech jobs still appear abundant elsewhere. In fact, tech career site Dice found that job postings for tech-focused roles were up 25% last year, and nearly two-thirds of those jobs were in other sectors like healthcare, consulting, defense, and banking,” Fast Company’s Jennifer Alsever points out.
If, in the end, you need to find a work culture that better matches your return to the office (or not) philosophy, our recruiters are ready to help.