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Is a Return to the Office Right for Your Company?

March 11, 2022 Employee Experience
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

Several large companies have recently made headlines over their decision to return to the office in the coming weeks. Others argue it's now time to say goodbye to the office altogether.

Determining the best course of action surely isn't black-and-white, and organizations must weigh a number of key factors. 

Commuting to an office every day isn’t for me, nor is it for millions of other people. But are workers really asking to only work remote and rarely, if ever, go in to the office? That’s where it gets a little more complicated. Employees value the flexibility of schedule and location they've come to enjoy over the past two years, but having more say over where they work doesn’t necessarily translate into full-time remote work. 

So, what does that mean for organizations looking to save on office space expenses but still hoping to give their employees a choice and offer a hybrid environment? It starts with not thinking of this new way of working as a cost-saving measure. In fact, the wrong decision might end up costing a lot more. 

Big Tech Bets on a Return to the Office

Companies like Meta and Google were among the first to tell their employees that most of them would be able to live anywhere and work from anywhere. Meanwhile, they were making big investments in office space. According to an article in the New York Times, data from CRBE shows that in the last three quarters of 2021, the tech industry leased 76 percent more office space than it did a year earlier.

"Companies, real estate analysts and workplace experts said several factors were propelling the trend, including a hiring boom, a race to attract and retain top talent, and a sense that offices will play a key role in the future of work," read the article.

Attracting and retaining talent is top of mind for business leaders right now. But if employees are pushing for more location flexibility, it seems paradoxical to invest billions of dollars in office space. There may be some legacy thinking behind some of these moves, but a lot of them are more exciting and future-oriented.

Related Article: The Great Resignation Is More Complicated Than It Looks

Permission vs. Permissive Approach to Office Work?

The legacy argument for expanding offices is simple. Companies have given employees permission to work from wherever for the past two years. Now, they're looking to revoke that permission by making a return to the office better. 

Apple, one of the companies that has battled the hardest to get people back to the office, seems to think that opening more space in regions where people live can help them. Microsoft, which recently announced its offices were fully reopening, seems to be in the same boat.

Commercial real estate investors and managers are doing everything they can to support this approach because it ensures more people will be filtering in and out of their spaces. It also makes other associated retail spaces surrounding office parks, headquarters and office buildings more valuable. 

Needing explicit permission to work the way that works best for every employee, which might include remote only or something less than 50 percent of the time in the office, seems like a shortsighted decision, though. A permissive approach may lend itself better to modern times. Letting people work as they do today while making the office an irresistible part of the work experience that lures them back in to take advantage of the amenities may be the winning strategy.

While a vast majority of people don’t necessarily want to avoid the office forever, requiring employees to comply with a one-size-fits-all policy can be a costly show of force.

Related Article: Can Hybrid Work Be Fair to All?

Great Talent Has Options

The normalization of hybrid and remote work has been great for many people, although there are still inequities. Companies that expand their office presence to make employees come back in person, whether that’s through soft goading or hard policies, may seem like a compromise. But it’s clear that employees want more autonomy over their work in general, from the hours they work to the place where they accomplish it. Using office expansion as an excuse to make people come in will only encourage people to look elsewhere for options.

Your best people will find options, too. Plenty of organizations are happy to accommodate flexibility, even without the loss of compensation — and sometimes with a pay bump. So, companies that use their offices as amenities to be taken advantage of rather than places to store their people so everyone is in the same place will ultimately prevail.

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