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What exactly is the point of all this? 

That’s the question of a former colleague of mine as she messaged to vent her frustrations. Her employer has mandated a 3-2, 2-3 hybrid model for their return to office protocol.

On this particular day, she was asked to alter her work schedule and come in on one of her remote days, specifically to attend what she was told was a very important meeting. 

Just one problem, upon completing her hour-long commute to the office she learned that because a key figure in the meeting couldn’t make it, the meeting was postponed. 

This story in itself isn’t a big deal if it’s an isolated incident or if employers allow for a bit of flexibility to make up for the lost remote work day, something she, like so many other employees in the knowledge economy, really values. 

But what it does point to are bigger issues around standards, expectations for office attendance and best practices for hybrid work models, which is just one of the three options at a company’s disposal now. 

“That’s disrespectful and it’s the kind of disrespect that drives a wedge between people and their jobs,” says Jan van der Hoop, President of Fit First Technologies, a talent matching platform focused on job fit. “The organization needs to be listening and to say we need some ground rules around how often we’re coming together and for what purpose. If we’re going to be coming together for a certain number of days a week or month, then let’s agree what those days are going to be so that we’re all showing up knowing what it is we’re there to accomplish.”

The push for returning to offices and functioning as businesses did pre-pandemic was inevitable, if for no other reason than the incredibly costly commercial real estate spaces companies invested in were going to waste as everyone worked from home. But this is about more than just the cost of rent.

Why Organizations Are Instilling A Return To Office Mandate

The reasons for trying to bring people back into offices include building team chemistry and collaboration through in person meetings and the belief that having people co-located will increase productivity and improve performance management. 

“Organizations are returning to the office in order to make their business operations more efficient,” Harrison Tang, CEO and Co-founder of people search engine Spokeo said. “The remote workplace has made it difficult to communicate and hence delays important decision-making.”

Spokeo has more than 180 employees. To encourage a return to the office, Tang collected feedback and concerns from them and took steps to resolve the issues they expressed. For instance, many employees were worried about the commute, so the company offered to provide them with transportation. 

Resource: Office Space Management: 5 Steps to Maximize Your Office Potential

Tang also implemented flexible work arrangements, with hybrid schedules that allow employees to choose their office days. That flexibility can help ease the transition and accommodate individual preferences to not work five days in office.

Going back to the traditional work environment could potentially benefit employees when it comes to sense of job security and confidence in their earning potential. Data from an ADP report titled “People at Work 2023: A Global Workforce View” indicates that: 

  • 51% of remote workers expect a pay rise in the next year, compared to 61% of on-site and 67% of hybrid workers.
  • 31% of remote workers expect a bonus in the next year, compared to 38% of on-site and 48% of hybrid.
  • 49% of remote workers don't feel secure in their job, compared to 36% of on-site and 36% of hybrid.

The return to office policies that have been put in place haven’t been met with much enthusiasm, a reaction that comes with a cost. Data from Gallup shows that only 29% of onsite employees are engaged compared to 37% of remote employees. 

The news has been rife with stories of employees leaving their companies following a mandate and business leaders justifying them with accusations of lost productivity and people taking advantage of the flexibility.

This is an often used, lazy narrative from companies that failed to learn how to manage employee performance in remote settings, but it’s not an uncommon one. 

While it may seem like a good idea, return to office mandates can strain the employer-employee relationship, particularly in cases where the employee may feel as though working remotely has no impact on their performance or they’ve moved to a new location when it seemed in office work wasn’t coming back. 

What’s right for any given organization and employee depends largely on needs. But the reality is, the needs of top talent have to be respected. 

“I don’t think there’s a single answer that fits what everyone needs. It changes from person to person and culture to culture,” van der Hoop said. “Any company who mandates a full time return to office for everyone is at risk of losing their best talent. Those people have the most options on the job market. Top performers can take their skills and go find a new job. And I can tell you firsthand from talking to employers who have put their foot down, they’ve lost people.”

Why Some Organizations Stay Remote

There are a variety of reasons to remain remote, not just employee satisfaction with the company’s flexibility and obvious efforts to drive retention.

The pandemic showed us how much could be achieved outside of the traditional co-located model and now, many employees expect to have remote work as a benefit at their disposal. 

For the organization, going fully remote saves on the expense of attempting to create and maintain a modern office. This is particularly true for smaller businesses who may not have the budget to compete with the extravagant office spaces of larger companies. 

Linda Ho, Chief People Officer at Seismic, doesn’t believe a full return to office is necessary. She’d rather set employees up for productivity on their own conditions than to physically see workers simply perform tasks on a day-to-day basis.

“Our number one priority is - and always has been - keeping our people happy and productive,” Ho said. “If going into the office doesn’t produce this outcome for some employees, they are welcome to remain remote.”

From a talent perspective, offering remote jobs has the obvious advantage of throwing away geography as a key factor and opening up the talent pool.

“We've embraced the fully remote model,” Daniel Cooper, Managing Partner at Lolly, a UK based software development agency said. “We were a hybrid company until Covid hit, but the unexpected benefits of going fully remote led us to close our office for good. One of the biggest advantages is that we can now hire the best talent, regardless of their geographical location. This has significantly expanded our talent pool and given us a competitive edge.”

Cooper admits that maintaining culture in the new environment has its challenges. It has to be consciously and consistently cultivated.

To do this, Lolly has been hosting virtual team-building activities on a regular basis and encouraging open communication through a variety of mediums to keep the culture alive and the team connected. 

“Interestingly, we've seen a significant increase in performance since going remote. The flexibility and comfort of working from home have boosted productivity,” Cooper said. “This has also presented a new challenge - preventing burnout. With work and home spaces merged, it's easy for employees to overwork.”

These challenges are not universal, however. Some employees already had experience with hybrid or remote working before the pandemic and have sussed how to maximize their performance in that setting. Others may still need that office structure and benefits of in person work.

“If employees are at a certain point in their life where their career is sort of set and they’ve learned to be adaptable and make it work via Zoom to stay connected to their teams and managers to get things done, then you’re going to lose them if they don’t want to be commuting two hours every day. If you tell them to suck it up, you’re going to lose them,” van der Hoop said.  

The Need For Balance

The position taken by Ho at Seismic doesn’t stem from self interest or even saving on commercial real estate costs.

The company recently announced the opening of a new office in San Diego, but has opted not to mandate a return to office in the interest of providing each employee the experience they prefer. 

“Industry best practices aren’t enough to be at the forefront of employee wellness, so every employee experience is custom-tailored to their unique needs,” she said. “We have designed our office spaces and hybrid work policies with an emphasis on flexibility and adapting to the changing needs of our workforce.”

Looking at RTO strategies through a DEI sort of lens, everyone has different needs when it comes to work life balance. So who is a good candidate for a return to the office? 

“Different people have different needs depending on their age and where they’re at in their careers," van der Hoop said. "Younger people tend to need social connection and mentoring differently than someone who is a bit more established. It’s just a fact of life for a lot of people, your social network is partially rooted in your work network. When you’re growing, learning and stretching yourself, it’s important to have that social network close to you in a way that’s hard to do across remote mediums.”

The answer of whether to return to office might be contextual, but the lesson we’re seeing many companies learn right now, some the hard way, is that mandating it isn’t the way to go. 

“It all boils down to respect and honoring the relationship,” van der Hoop said. “In any respectful relationship, you don’t put your foot down and say this is the way it’s going to be, you have a conversation about what’s important and why it’s important and you come to a consensus. Any organization that sets a top-down a mandate is condemning itself to being left with only the people who have no choice but to be there. The ones that feel like prisoners.”

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By David Rice

David Rice is a long time journalist and editor who specializes in covering human resources and leadership topics. His career has seen him focus on a variety of industries for both print and digital publications in the United States and UK.