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The Battle to Bring Workers Back Into the Office: What’s the Right Approach?

6 Mins read

Each week, the number of businesses announcing their return to the office grows. Zoom, the company whose technology helped drive the remote work movement during the pandemic, recently announced its employees would also need to return to the office. It seems corporate America went from strongly embracing remote work to strongly discouraging (or disallowing) time away from the office. Why the dramatic shift, and what’s the right strategy to follow?

This is the question rattling around C-suites across the country, and the answer deserves a more nuanced approach than it has received. If the COVID-19 pandemic opened leaders’ eyes to the possibilities for remote- and hybrid- work arrangements, the intervening years offered the opportunity to reflect on corporate America’s successes and failures.

What’s Worked Well

  • Employees are productive working remotely and report they are better able to balance life’s demands: According to a 2022 Gallup poll, hybrid workers have been able to maintain their work performance while also meeting other life responsibilities, such as running errands or taking children to school and activities. A Pew survey published in March found that 41% of those whose jobs can be done remotely are working a hybrid schedule.
  • Companies have gained access to broader and expanded talent pools: Remote work allows recruiters access to draw from a larger talent pool. Many have discovered previously underutilized talent pools in lower-cost locations across the United States or globally. Additionally, employers find it easier to plug in remote workers on a part-time basis who previously couldn’t work full-time in person due to family commitments or because they were semi-retired and wanted to work fewer hours. This reduced the time needed to fill roles and helped keep overall employment costs from escalating further (as more supply helps to better balance demand).
  • Many employees report happier job satisfaction, as they have more freedom over their schedule: Beyond its impact on the productivity of existing staff, freedom can be a useful recruiting tool. For employers who can’t afford to match salaries offered by a deeper-pocketed competitor, workplace flexibility ― such as the option to work remotely ― can provide a useful edge.

What Hasn’t Worked Well

Employers do have some good reasons for wanting employees back in the office for at least part of the time:

  • Employee commitment and engagement have suffered in an all-remote scenario, as it’s hard to maintain a connection to the organization when there are no informal interactions, and company meetings or departmental meetings are harder to create real moments of connection when they are conducted over video conference. It’s harder to make friends at work, connect with your team, and feel part of a community as well.
  • Communication between departments has dropped, with many noting that employees and teams have become increasingly siloed through the work-from-home/remote work evolution.
  • Collaboration and practicality: A remote or hybrid approach is not always practical. If you are a creative company that makes podcasts, TV shows, disruptive technology, etc. ― any process that requires heavy brainstorming―the advantages of collaborating with colleagues in person are obvious. A Pew survey noted that 61% of U.S. workers simply do not have jobs that can be done from home. And even for those who can work remotely, the need to collaborate requires some time face-to-face to work effectively and with quality.

Practical Considerations for the Path Forward

The reality of most corporate environments today is that work is complex: duties can change from week to week and day to day, from team to team and person to person. Assigning remote and in-person work roles will―and sometimes should—be dynamic and flexible rather than fixed in place. Navigating those complexities remains a central challenge for today’s leaders.

The following considerations can help assist the process of deciding which work model is best.

1. Consider your personnel and what they’re doing right now. Empower your leaders to make the right calls for their teams vs. dictating a one-size-fits-all solution.

Say your organization consists of ten teams. Three don’t need to be in the office except for key meetings or brainstorming sessions. Three don’t need to be in at all. The other four require intense collaboration on a key deliverable by a certain deadline and need to be working in sync. In this scenario, it’s essential for a middle manager or team leader to be aware of the roles within each team, how the teams interact with one another, and the relevant deadlines that will dictate who’s in the office when, and to empower these leaders to make the best decisions for their teams. Support those teams by helping make it easier for them: consider holding defined “collaboration days” for members of your remote teams to gather in person while scheduling lunches, speakers, and social events around it to create the right pull into the office.

2. Think about where your products are in their life cycle and the current state of how your teams work together.

Consider being more flexible in allowing employees to work from home as your products allow. When preparing for a new product launch or when multiple teams are involved in the early stage of product design or ideation, keeping your teams in the office makes sense relative to later in the product cycle. These factors are ever-changing and might require revisiting your work arrangement over time.

Here, the demographics of your organization might come into play. A senior organization whose members have worked together for a decade probably has the discipline, teamwork, and resilience to overcome the challenges posed by working at a distance from one another. A more junior team that needs mentoring might have more of a need to gather in person.

3. Consider what your competition is doing and your relative employee value proposition.

If your organization insists every employee reports to an office, and your direct competitors allow for a hybrid model, you’re at a disadvantage. Enforcing a policy that effectively promotes attrition will harm the business, so be clear on what your talent peers are up to, and why, and take a look at what is driving your decision-making. Does a more flexible work environment help you compete?

  1. Consider all the nuanced costs and benefits of a remote work or in-office solution
  • Avoid sunk cost mentalities: A company’s internal budget can and should guide your thinking. When it comes to your office space or lease, that shouldn’t be the driving factor behind your workplace strategy – it should be focused on what makes sense for your business. If you discover your strategy should allow for more remote or hybrid work and you need less space, look into opportunities to downside or sublet the office space vs. requiring in-person attendance.
  • If you have a large number of employees near a main office, a more hybrid solution may be very practical and help you address some of the concerns or remote work. For those with a highly distributed workforce across geography, requiring frequent flights for meetings, etc., will be costly and impractical. If your strategy has evolved and it doesn’t make sense to have as many remote employees, consider what incentives to put in place and what hiring guidelines make sense moving forward to avoid deepening the problem.
  • Carefully consider international hires moving forward: Globally distributed workforces can present practical concerns, from the administrative burden to compliance with various local labor laws, legal entity requirements, and more. Payroll services companies can help but still require a heavy lift that may not always pencil out if you have 1-2 people in each country. In this case, select “hubs” or “approved regions” for hiring within, limiting your list to regions aligned with your demographics, and desired talent strategy to balance the cost/benefit equation.
  • Use data to guide and iterate: As you adjust and re-adjust your remote-work policies, use actionable data to inform the strategy. Requiring employees to work in your office isn’t the only way to measure and promote productivity. Software tools like Slack and Teams allow leaders to monitor when employees are active, inactive, or in meetings. (Ask IT to cull daily or weekly data if you don’t want to monitor your workers’ activity from minute to minute.) This can help you measure whether or not your policies are promoting productivity.

Ultimately a flexible or remote work policy might not be best for your organization. But for the roughly 40% of workers whose jobs can be done remotely, consider a nuanced approach. You may find that through the appropriate flexibility, testing, and experimentation, you arrive at the right equilibrium that delivers the best results while maintaining the flexibility required to move your organization forward.

Jesse Meschuk is a career and human resources expert and a Senior Advisor with Exequity.  Jesse has more than 20 years of consulting and human resources experience and has worked across a wide variety of industries, including technology, entertainment, gaming, retail, hospitality, and sports. Jesse’s work has spanned across the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

Remote office stock image by /Shutterstock

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