Heading Back to the Office: How Companies Are Implementing Stricter Return-to-Work Policies

Jamie Sharp

Writer & Blogger

It’s 2023, and many organisations are gradually returning to full-scale operation after the devastating disruption of businesses by the COVID-19 pandemic. This transition is causing a significant shift in workplaces, with leaders and CEOs enforcing more stringent return-to-work mandates. Recent statistics present a realistic depiction of this shift. According to August 2023 data from workplace tech firm Eptura, seen by BBC Worklife, desk bookings among 2,200 businesses have grown by 56% in the US and 46% in the UK since last autumn.

CNBC reveals that some industry leaders, including Amazon, Disney and Starbucks, have enacted strict return-to-office mandates. However, recent data from The Real Estate Board of New York reports that while average building visits are back above their pre-pandemic baseline at 61%, the momentum has stalled. So far, the growing discussion about return-to-work mandates underscores the vital issue of employee reluctance, maintaining a work-life balance, and considering the benefits of remote and hybrid working arrangements, both from the employer’s and the employee’s standpoint. Wall Street leadership veteran Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder and CEO of Ellevest and the former Citi CFO and head of global wealth management at Bank of America, recently told a room of leaders at a CNBC C-suite event that just thinking everything can go back to the way it was is a flawed mindset, signalling a broader acknowledgement that the work landscape has forever changed. 

Human Resources and Talent Acquisition teams must find creative ways to maintain high levels of engagement and motivation amongst prospective and existing employees, even as they closely examine emerging return-to-work trends. Studying these trends and the road ahead helps create an awareness that workplaces will continue to evolve. Our blog on Top Talent and HR Trends to Shape 2023 offers valuable insights to help navigate the profound transformations experienced in the post-pandemic landscape. Now, let’s explore the crackdown on returning to the office, why employees are not excited to return full-time, the pros and cons from a balanced perspective, as well as the outlook for the remainder of the year and beyond.

Rethinking Remote Work: Why Employers Are Eager to Bring Teams Back to the Office

As the debate over employee work preferences gains momentum, experts emphasise the importance of organisations acknowledging the evolving needs of their workforce and embracing remote or hybrid working arrangements. Yet, more and more businesses insist their employees return to the office. What drives this compelling urge to bring everyone back to the office?

Wanting Trust in Corporate Leadership

The issue of wanting trust in corporate leadership has been a major topic of discussion for a long time. Most managers link this directly to profit and worker productivity rather than public relations. According to research by Ricoh Europe, two-thirds of employers do not trust their staff to work remotely. Their survey polled 1,500 European business decision-makers. 65% lacked trust in remote work, while 39% believed employees were less productive at home. Unfortunately, this mistrust is putting a strain on working relationships. Business leaders must adopt a tactful return-to-work approach to prevent employee attrition. Interestingly, 57% of respondents from the same survey believed investing in flexible working technology was essential to attracting and retaining talent. Hybrid working, which is often mistaken to be the same as remote working, is a better alternative in this case. Not only is this flexible, but it also eases the cost of living crisis

Companies Want to Preserve Their Culture

Carmine Di Sibio, Chairman and CEO of EY, one of the largest professional services organisations in the world with over 300,000 employees, recently stressed the importance of office presence for maintaining corporate culture. Di Sibio expressed reservations about remote work, mentioning that the culture at EY is slowly fading, and firm leadership is desperately scrambling to hold it together. This loss of culture is a significant concern for many companies. Spontaneous bonding experiences with team members in an office space are challenging to replicate. Business leaders are intensifying efforts to bring employees back to the office, with some going as far as tying job success to showing up at the office.

Employers Want to Regain Control of Their Workforce

Many employers felt somewhat powerless during the pandemic, when remote work emerged as the most viable approach. They now seek to regain control by advocating for office-based work, believing it offers a more direct means of supervising and managing their workforce.

In-Person Networking is Essential for Career Growth

Historically, corporate executives have thrived on in-person networking and strategic visibility. They often advance their careers by being present at the right moments, building valuable connections, and leveraging various interpersonal skills. However, these competencies hold less sway in virtual meetings, challenging the traditional path to executive success.

Employee Reluctance to Return-to-Office: Why the Hesitation?

One crucial aspect of the return-to-office debate is the reluctance of employees to embrace full-time in-office work. A recent survey by Slack found that only 12% of people would choose to be in the office full-time. Yet, 50% of leaders are demanding that their employees return to the office. This glaring contrast in preferences raises the question: why are employees hesitant to return?

Envoy’s workplace trends report reveals that the top 5 reasons why employees are reluctant to return to the office include long or costly commutes to the office, lack of flexibility in work hours, slow or outdated technology (employees who work from home can control the quality of their technology), dealing with chatty coworkers, and the increased possibility of their colleagues not being on-site. 

Business leaders can address these concerns by adopting a hybrid work model where team members can meet on select week days, promote open communication amongst team members, and offer financial well-being assistance and education. 

Balancing the Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages of Return-to-Office from an Employer’s Perspective

From an employer’s standpoint, there are several advantages to a return-to-office policy. Increased collaboration, better oversight, and a more vibrant company culture are potential benefits. It’s undeniable that in-person interactions can promote innovation and teamwork that remote work struggles to replicate fully.

Advantages of Remote/Hybrid Arrangement from an Employee’s Perspective

On the flip side, employees have grown accustomed to the flexibility of remote and hybrid working arrangements. For many, the improved work-life balance and the elimination of commuting have become invaluable. Stricter return-to-office policies risk eroding these advantages and potentially impacting employee satisfaction.

Disadvantages of Remote Work from an Employer’s Perspective

Employers have identified several disadvantages associated with remote work arrangements. One notable concern is the potential decline in team interaction and company culture, as remote work can result in isolation among employees and a reduced opportunity for spontaneous interactions. Additionally, employers worry about the difficulty in monitoring and evaluating employee productivity remotely and the challenges in providing on-the-job training and mentorship for new hires.

Furthermore, there is a perceived lack of control over work hours and the potential for employees to blur the boundaries between work and personal life, which may lead to burnout and decreased efficiency. Finally, some employers express concerns about the security risks associated with remote access to company data and information. Hence, the growing call demand to return to office.

Disadvantages of In-Office Working Arrangements from an Employee’s Perspective

Employees fear losing the flexibility they’ve come to cherish. Their return to a rigid 9-to-5 schedule may disrupt their newfound work-life balance, increase their spending, stress them out, and impede their creative process, resulting in dissatisfaction or job loss.

The Road Ahead: What to Expect

In the future, the discussion about returning to the office is expected to gain momentum. A whopping 90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024, according to an August 2023 report from Resume Builder, which surveyed 1,000 company leaders. Nearly 30% say their company will threaten to fire employees who do not comply with in-office requirements.

Currently, the return-to-work scenario is at a crossroads. Employers seek the benefits of in-office work, while employees are wary of losing the flexibility they’ve grown to love. The road ahead will likely involve a delicate balancing act, with some companies enforcing stricter return-to-office policies and others opting for a more flexible approach. The outcome of this struggle between tradition and flexibility will shape job sectors for the remainder of 2023 and into 2024. 

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