Leaders Want People Back in the Office, Workers Ask 'Why'
Every week this summer a new headline popped up about announcing a company's return to the office. In the industries most comfortable with remote work like finance and technology, everyone from JPMorgan to Apple told people to get ready to return to their high-priced headquarters. Under those headlines, it seemed like the thousands of other companies that hadn’t overtly committed to some level of remote work indefinitely were in on this change.
Unlike past false starts, this one seemed like it would stick. As local authorities dropped vaccine and mask requirements and people traveled in record numbers, at least enough people seemed to think that things were back to where we were at the end of 2019.
In spite of the popularity of remote work and the flexibility it allowed, working at the office is back. But why, exactly?
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For company leaders, the reason is simple: They like having people in the office more than they don’t. Some executives may think that working in the office results in better work but if that were the case, why are employees twice as likely to work in the office than executives?
Leaders want other people in the office while retaining their own flexibility, in spite of both hybrid and remote work approaches being extremely popular among employees. They like it better that way. That’s it.
Who cares that employee productivity isn’t hampered by remote work or if the company has thrived doing business this way? They want people back at the office.
And you know what? That’s fine. Knowing you want to build an in-person office culture is great. Many people would rather work in an office and they like that fact that other people will be there as well. It can actually be freeing as a company to find an identity and create a workforce that buys into that mantra.
I don’t know if every organization calling people back to the office is doing it with that level of intention but that’s how these sorts of things generally go. A few big name companies do something well-publicized like ask their people to return to the office and others follow suit.
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Companies Haven’t Been Hurt By Remote Work
With these widespread shifts, a number of popular narratives about the dangers of not returning to the office have reappeared with a vengeance. In recent weeks, we've been told how remote work withers our social networks, how it negatively impacts the economy, how return-to-office mandates are actually working and how you can’t even measure the ill effects of remote work, but it’s definitely there.
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JPMorgan has aggressively been pushing to bring people back to the office, but one of the most sophisticated financial companies in the world can’t put a number on what they are missing by not having people in the office? Meanwhile, they have no qualms about telling people who don’t come in enough that their job could be in jeopardy if there ever is a layoff.
Early in the pandemic, there was a widespread belief that people couldn’t be as productive at home as they were in the office. What the data showed was that companies that were working productively before the pandemic didn’t just do fine, they significantly increased their productivity. Meanwhile, organizations that struggled with productivity before the pandemic continued to struggle and in some cases lost ground.
Going back into the office won't necessarily fix that, however. Without a clear strategy for demonstrating what people get from the in-office experience, the chance for dissatisfaction — especially among high-performers who have alternative options — is just too risky for organizations who can’t find, much less afford, to replace talent.
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Navigating a Workforce Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Work leaders find themselves at a crossroads. Most CHROs and VPs of HR I’ve talked to about this are fighting for flexible work arrangements that retain people while meeting the company’s goals. Yet executives want people back in the office. And employees are fighting back.
Organizations like GM have come back hat in hand after delaying their return to office mandate that they had communicated not more than a few days earlier. Other companies are dealing with far less publicized but still stout opposition to strict return to office mandates.
It’s impossible to come up with a work arrangement that will please everyone and harm no one. Instead, work leaders will have to navigate this challenge with the agility and flexibility they have used during this disruptive time.
About the Author
Lance Haun is a leadership and technology columnist for Reworked. He has spent nearly 20 years researching and writing about HR, work and technology.