Pros & Cons of a Return to Office
Is it time, finally, to go back to the office? Companies like Zoom, Meta, and Google are calling employees back into their physical workspaces at least part of the time. And that has many HR leaders and executives wondering if this is the turning point: do we stay or do we go (back to our cubicles)?
The average U.S. employee is working from home 5.6 days per month right now, and 68% of employees want at least a hybrid schedule with one or more days per week working from home. But 90% of companies say they plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024—and almost 30% plan to fire employees who don’t comply. 😦
That tension between what employers are declaring is the new norm—come back to the office!—and what employees are actually doing is pretty fascinating. And it makes it hard to figure out what, exactly, most companies should be mandating if they want to boost productivity and build company culture while also retaining their best workers.
There’s no one right answer here. Every company is different, and their employees and leaders have different priorities and needs. But look carefully and objectively at the pros and cons of returning to the office for everyone involved. Then you can craft a better return to office (RTO) plan that aligns with your business objectives and boosts your employee experience as well.
Pros of returning to the office
Returning to the office has some significant and meaningful upsides for companies and employees alike.
Building stronger employee connections
The biggest pro of returning to the office regularly is connecting with the people you work with at all levels. There’s simply no substitute for getting face time, both scheduled and informal, with people across the organization in the course of your normal workday. It helps build critical bonds, break down silos, and foster moments of connection and collaboration. And for many, it can help mitigate the loneliness and disconnection that the last few years have brought.
That sense of togetherness can also help build a greater sense of purpose and belonging at work, which are critical elements of employee engagement. While there are absolutely ways to build this kind of connected culture when working remotely, they have to be purposefully built in—you can’t just expect it to evolve naturally like it would in a full-time in-person office.
Helps newer employees onboard faster
Remote work is great for experienced employees who have been at their company a long time and have already built strong connections. But for new employees, joining a company remotely can be difficult (especially if the company hasn’t put a lot of thought into the remote onboarding experience).
A poor start for remote employees can make work feel isolating and draining—not the employee experience you want to give your valued workers.
This face time is especially critical for young people who are just entering the workforce. They don’t have the years of in-office experience to fall back on like older and more experienced employees and may feel more lost and struggle to adjust. Having some regular in-office time from the beginning can help them get their footing.
May increase productivity
Some studies show that remote workers are less productive. While there's a lot of nuance to look at, not all employees live in large suburban houses with a separate office space and a door to close. My work-from-home setup in my small, shared apartment pre-pandemic was just sitting on one end of the couch and hoping my internet would be fast enough for Zoom calls—not an ergonomic dream, and not fun to do full-time.
Employees may have partners or roommates who work from home full-time, small children, or even a noisy and nosy pet who loves to pop on Zoom calls all the time. And coming into the office regularly can provide a welcome respite from those distractions and a comfortable, ergonomic place to get work done.
Cons of returning to the office
Returning full-time to the office is unpopular
A full return-to-office mandate, with a required five days per week in the office, has an astonishingly low take-up rate of 48%. And almost 20% of people whose jobs allow them to work from home are not coming into the office as many days as their company demands. Employees are clearly not keen to fully come back to the office, even when their employer requires it.
And it makes sense; if you’ve been successfully working from home at least some of the time for the past three years, an inflexible demand to spend every single workday in the office doesn’t add up. Employees are behaving rationally, and with the unemployment rate still very low, they know they have plenty of leverage to ignore these decisions.
The in-office experience isn’t what it was
One extremely common complaint about coming back to the office is that the vibes are just…off. While pre-pandemic most meetings happened in person and accidental run-ins at the cafeteria or water cooler were common, it’s not really the case these days.
Instead, many employees are being dragged back to the office, only to sit alone in their cubicles (or a noisy open-plan office) on a series of Zoom calls all day, as Meta employees have found during their mandated RTO. They have all the downsides of in-person work—a long commute, less flexibility, putting on real pants—without the benefits of the social and creative perks the office is supposed to bring.
Managers and leaders might not actually return themselves
Executives are the ones driving the decision to return to the office, and they’re very keen on getting back to the way most of us used to work. In fact, almost two-thirds of CEOs think their employees will go back to five days a week in the office within three years. And those leaders aren’t shy about using tracking software or monitoring badge swipes to ensure their workers are complying.
But those leaders and managers often don’t hold themselves to the same standard—they’re not in their office five days a week, every week, either. That sense of unfairness can feel frustrating to employees, especially if leaders don’t give much of a reason for the RTO mandate beyond “culture” and “collaboration” (which are important, but also can be built outside of the office).
Retaining employees is more challenging
Employees value working from home at least one day per week so much that they’re willing to quit their current jobs to find a more flexible one. While many return-to-office mandates are driven by concerns about productivity, it’s important to consider what will happen to your productivity levels as a company if a bunch of employees quit when you implement one.
And this is especially true for your most talented employees—they always have other options, so driving them away with a blanket “come back to the office or else” is pretty likely.
Making the return to office decision the right way
As this pros and cons list shows, there’s just not an easy answer to the RTO or remote debate. Companies that have been fully remote forever, or ones where work needs to get done in person, don’t need to choose—but everyone else does. This debate isn’t going away any time soon.
How can you make a smarter RTO plan that keeps the pros of the office while mitigating many of the cons? The two keys here are intentionality and autonomy.
Your remote employees won’t be as connected or productive as in-office ones if you don’t set them up for success with intention and thoughtfulness. That means building connections between employees no matter where they work, creating better work processes and using tools to improve collaboration, and measuring employee performance by their output, not just by how often they’re in their office chairs.
A big reason why employees bridle so much at being told to return to the office full-time is the lack of autonomy in the decision. They’ve been working productively and happily from home for a few years now—and suddenly they are told they can’t do that anymore, and often not given a reason besides vague asides about culture and collaboration.
Maximizing employee autonomy, like letting teams decide how often to come in and which days they’ll be present, helps employees feel like the skilled and valued professionals they are.
The back-to-office debate will probably rage on for at least another year as we all adjust to the shifts in how, and where, we get our work done. But assessing the existing research, best practices, and how to maximize the pros and minimize the cons if you do decide to come back to the office in some form, can help your company and your employees make the best of the new normal, whatever that means for you.
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