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Balancing Flexibility and Face-to-Face: the Return to Office  

Return to work
In this article

“We’re committed to distributed work, and we’re confident people can make a meaningful impact both from the office and at home”

Meta spokesperson

“By showing up in the office (or for events), you’re strengthening connections and creating a positive wave of change in your community”

Salesforce representative

In recent months, companies like Amazon, Salesforce, Alphabet, and Meta changed their minds on previous remote-work plans. They are calling their employees to return to physical offices at least three days a week. 

For the past year, Google has asked employees to come to the office three days a week, luring them with all sorts of benefits. Now, Google has a new approach: employees must comply with the three-day requirement, or their absence will show up on their performance reviews – according to a memo sent to employees by Google Chief People Officer Fiona Cicconi obtained by The Washington Post

Salesforce is luring employees back to the office with $10 donations to charities for each day an employee comes to the office from Jun 12th to Jun 23rd

And employees are not too happy with the decisions. They feel reluctant to go back to their workplaces. 

So, to return to office, or not to return to office? This is the question. 

Employees aren't enthusiastic about the return to office

Source 

To answer it, in this article we’ll be: 

  • Looking at some statistics on productivity, returning to office, and office occupancy 
  • Analyzing the reasons why companies urge employees to come back to office  
  • Analyzing why employees are reluctant to get back to the office 
  • Showing how employers and employees meet halfway in the return to office topic. 

Let’s dig in! 

What does the data say about productivity and remote work? 

“Our early analysis of performance data suggests that engineers who either joined Meta in-person and then transferred to remote or remained in-person performed better on average than people who joined remotely” – say the folks at Meta. 

There are several reports showing that productivity went down while remote-work arrangements were in place.  

On the other hand, other reports prove the contrary…  

A study conducted by Stanford University in the summer of 2020 discovered that remote workers were 5% more productive than those working in a physical office. But take it with a grain of salt, because this is self-reported data! By the spring of 2022, remote worker productivity had risen to 9% supported by the better use of technology.   

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that work-from home (WFH) industries account for more than all of the positive productivity growth during 2020-2022. The graphic below shows 17 industries and their productivity growth rate between 2020 (Q1) and 2022 (Q1). Color coding identifies the top-performing industries as mainly the WFH services colored in purple. 

productivity growth rate

So, we’ve got data that contradicts itself. But who’s right? 

Now, we all know that aggregate data does not show the whole picture. If you take individual companies, you might see that some got more productive, others didn’t. 

On the other hand, internal company surveys can be biased… 

Now, despite these company efforts to get people back to the offices, office occupancy remains stuck below 50% of pre-pandemic levels in major metropolitan areas around the US, as per the Kastle Back to Work Barometer

back to work barometer

How come the occupancy rate does not grow more? One important factor is the fact that smaller companies are not restricting remote work. They are looking at it as a competitive advantage. 

Remote work: the competitive advantage of small tech companies 

Smaller tech companies are much more likely than their larger peers to allow people to work fully remotely. Data from the Flex Index shows that 88% of tech companies under 500 employees are fully flexible. 65% of tech companies with 25k+ employees are structured hybrid. 

remote work as a competitive advantage

Structured Hybrid is the highest rising working model, where companies set up clear expectations on when and how often employees need to return to the office. 

On the other hand, 67% of tech companies with less than 100 employees are fully remote.  

fully remote companies by company size

We’ve talked recently with Nora Feller from Matchr, a tech company that works fully remote, on the trends in hiring remotely and remote working culture. Make sure to check it out! 

Why do companies urge employees to come back to office? 

9-to-5 job

Source 

Now, it’s quite clear that employers and employees can have different goals when it comes to the approach to the way of working. And it’s normal. But the fact that this is something that can lead to frustrations for both sides, cannot be ignored.  

Now, why do employers want to get employees back in the office? 

  1. There’s a belief that most professionals learn their job through an apprenticeship model, which is almost impossible to replicate in a virtual world.  
  1. Some studies say that the sense of belonging to a company can diminish if physical presence does not happen. 
  1. They think that productivity will go down if work does not happen inside the office. 
  1. Certain employers feel the managers and team leaders need to be in the office, following the principle that „the more senior you are, the more visible your presence must be”. This is exactly what Elon Musk thinks. And it seems that there’s even a term for this from the psychology perspective: the „mere exposure effect.” It suggests that the more individuals are exposed to someone the more they like that person. Increased exposure may generate positive assumptions such as „these people work harder.” 
  1. Companies have invested lots of money in offices and campuses that are no longer being used to their full potential. They are still paying high leases for unused spaces. This makes employers feel that they are „losing” investment. 
  1. Some executives think that seeing work by others can lead to a phenomenon called „goal contagion”. This translates like this: being around a group of people who are working toward a common goal reinforces that goal in everyone in the workplace. 
  1. Some managers feel that they have more control over what’s happening in a company if they can see their employees. 
  1. Many executives feel that collaboration in the workplace is a booster for creativity.  
  1. It can be harder for new colleagues to be integrated in the team. 
  1. There might be a decrease in employee engagement in remote and hybrid work arrangements

Now, reading these reasons, we can admit there there’s some truth to some of them. 

But, on the other hand, proper processes can handle lots of the issues mentioned above.  

But what happens on the employees’ side? 

Why are employees reluctant to get back to the office? 

to return to office or not to return to office?

Source 

We’ve compiled a shortlist with answers to these questions. Here it goes: 

  1. Working from home saves lots of commuting time and diminishes the stress that comes with it. Imagine saving one hour a day commute time. This adds up to 5 hours a week. It’s an important gain. This extra time can be spent with family, friends, or on practicing hobbies. And this leads to a happier life. 
  1. Working from home also means savings when it comes to gas, car maintenance, lunch (unless you order lunch home as well), and even clothing. On the other hand, in the countries affected by the energy crisis, working from home can put pressure on electricity bills. There might be a tradeoff here. 
  1. Many employees can design their own “work-friendly happy corner” where they can cut potential distractions. Also, for many people, the office isn’t a cozy workplace, that can make them feel comfortable. Not every company affords to have a campus like Google or LinkedIn. 
  1. 87% of employees feel that they are productive when they work from home, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Special Report (September 2022). 

See how the reasons differ between employers and employees? 

It makes sense that frustrations show up. 

But how can they all meet halfway? 

How can a compromise be achieved? 

How can employers and employees meet halfway in the return to office topic? 

How can employers and employees meet halfway in the return to office topic? 

Source 

Let’s find those reasons that align company goals with individual goals, when it comes to getting teams back in the office. 

We are going to go through some of the reasons listed above and see how they can be approached to achieve a win-win situation. 

Company reason: Learning needs an apprenticeship model, which is almost impossible to replicate in a virtual world. It can be harder for new colleagues to be integrated in the team.   

Research shows that the E-Learning Market is valued at USD 198.2 Billion in 2022 and is projected to reach a value of USD 602.0 Billion by 2030 by 2028.  So, online training works, but there are some downsides: 

  • Social interaction during training sessions is scarce.  
  • Hands-on training is easier in a physical setting. 
  • Individuals can’t really exchange ideas and questions with one another. 
  • The focus can decrease in virtual learning.  
  • There is more personalization and flexibility in face-to-face training.  

This is why companies find more value in face-to-face learning activities. And the fact that the team onboarding gets easier like this, should not be neglected either.  

As a recommendation here: learning and onboarding are processes that can be handled in the office. 

Company reason: There might be a decrease in employee engagement in remote and hybrid work arrangements.   

Microsoft data shows that 85% of global employees come back to the office for the promise of socializing. So, yes, everyone agrees that socializing in the office is a good thing.  

But what if companies organize socializing events? Or get people to the office for specific activities that can’t happen properly when at home? 

When people come together in the same room, for brainstorming or planning, people might feel more connected, more attached to the common goal. 

Also, the latest Microsoft research shows that high employee engagement correlates with stronger financial performance. How can high engagement be achieved? Via intentional employee communications, clarity in goal setting, and a healthy feedback loop. High engagement leads to better performance, thus, to improved productivity. This gets us back to the start of our article: “productivity” is the key word here. 

As a recommendation here: get people to the office for the promise of socializing as well for brainstorming, planning, catching up on projects, team bonding and creative activities. 

Also, did you know that the volume of face-to-face interaction in an open space office decreases by approx. 70%, with an associated increase in electronic interaction? You’ve probably seen it before: total silence in the office space, while people chat on Slack.  

If you have an open space, it is proven that people don’t engage much. In short, rather than seeing face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and messaging. So, you could design an office with smaller spaces where a few people could meet and talk. 

Employee reason: Working from home saves lots of commuting time and diminishes the stress that comes with it. 

But if the activities in the office can break their routine, working from the office will make everyone happy. When coming to the office, employees don’t want to do the same tasks and in the same way as they do at the home office. A change in work routine may be what attracts them to the office. If you’re planning to have those virtual meetings, forget about it, because they won’t see the value of being in the office. 

Let’s not forget that when employees have more control over their schedule, they feel appreciated, and this leads to higher work satisfaction and motivation. Have this in mind when you require people to return to office.

To sum it up, whether it’s a hybrid model or requiring employees to come in five days a week, employers need to show the value of asking workers to commute into the office again if workers have been successfully working from home for the past years. 

Alina Belascu
Alina Belascu
Alina is a digital marketer with a passion for web design. When she’s not strategizing she’s doing photography, listening to podcasts on history and psychology, and playing with her 2 dogs and cat.