Thinking of forcing your employees back into the workplace? Don’t

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person workplaces and forced much of the world into an unplanned work-from-home experiment. Three years later, organizations around the globe have adopted these new workplace models on a more permanent basis, with some adjustments. Leaders are recognizing that most people don’t want to return to the office full time.

McKinsey surveyed 25,000 workers in spring 2022 and found that 87% of people who are offered flex work options take advantage of them. The report also found that 

58% of respondents reported having the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week, while 35% had the option to work remotely five days a week. Interestingly, survey respondents were working in many different kinds of jobs and in many different industries, including what are traditionally known as “blue collar” jobs as well as “white collar” professions. This is notable because it’s often thought that “blue collar” jobs are more likely to demand on-site labor. 

Unfortunately, the numbers were not evenly distributed between men and women. Sixty-one percent of men are able to work remotely compared to only 52% of women, and we know from heaps of research as well as our own anecdotal experiences that requiring in-person work has a bigger impact on women who are still doing the bulk of housework and childcare, and therefore would benefit from the option to work remotely. 

Meanwhile, news stories abound about employers who want their teams back in the office. Sam Altman, CEO of Open AI, the company that brought us ChatGPT, recently went on record saying the move to remote work in tech was a “mistake” and an “experiment” that is now over. 

Another article from ResumeBuilder went with the alarming headline, “9 in 10 companies will require employees to work from office in 2023.”

ResumeBuilder conducted a survey in Q1 of 2023 and found that “companies that currently still allow full-time remote work…will require employees to come to the office with some frequency.” Reasons for this included improved communication (55%), creativity (50%), productivity (48%), company culture (39%), and employee oversight (31%).

You can’t fire me, I quit

Twenty-one percent of employers said they planned to fire workers who didn’t comply with the return-to-office plan. This is probably fine though, and likely to backfire, as separate research has found that larger numbers of employees than that would rather quit than go back to the workplace. Some employers planned to incentivize the transition, with the most commonly offered carrots being catered meals (41%), commuter benefits (35%), and raises (34%).

The pros and cons of bringing people back to work

There are indeed some benefits to in-person work. It’s hard to argue against this. Returning to the office can improve collaboration and communication among team members, promote a sense of community and culture, and provide access to resources and equipment that may not be available at home. In-person interactions can help to build relationships, trust, and camaraderie, which can be valuable for team cohesion.

On the other hand, the potential downsides to a full-time return to the office are many. These include commuting costs and time, increased stress and burnout, and difficulties with work-life balance. These things matter. And as we mentioned above, women are more severely impacted by many of these things than men. Employers also can reap benefits from smaller offices, paying less rent and saving on other costs. 

But let’s not forget the fact that some people actually do want to go back to in-person work. They feel more productive, appreciate the separation between work and home life, and enjoy the interaction with other people. This may apply more to single people who live alone than people who live with families and roommates. 

In most cases, a hybrid or remote workplace model offers the best of both worlds, allowing employees to work from home part of the time while going into the office for in-person meetings and collaboration – or simply because they feel like it. This can help to maintain the benefits of face-to-face interaction while also offering the flexibility and autonomy of remote work.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to return to the office, adopt a hybrid model, or work remotely will depend on the specific needs and preferences of the organization and its employees. But forcing people back into the workplace full time is not the answer. 


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