Asking workers to return to the office

Asking workers to return to the office


How do you feel about companies asking workers to return to the office after three years of working from home?

I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t have child- or elder-care issues and my company is only requiring workers to return to the office two days a week. Yet, I find this very disruptive. My team and I have long commutes (2+ hours each way) and we have been applying that time to our work. In addition, our larger team is global and we have always met via Microsoft Teams. Our workstations have been eliminated in order to create a “collaboration space.” This means we will have to reserve space each week in order to come into the office and bring our laptops and whatever else we need for our work that day,

What disturbs me the most is the tone of the message from our CEO. It was a unilateral announcement that “this is what we’re going to do” without any consideration for colleagues’ concerns, and there are many. (There is a process to apply for an exception, but I have little faith in the outcome.)

As always, thank you thank you for your guidance to those looking for a job and for those already employed.

Nick’s Reply

return to the officeYou’re not alone.

Return to the office? Really?

The consulting firm McKinsey reports that 87% of Americans want to work in a flexible environment — in an office setting and remotely. Adzuna, an employment website company, reports that from November 2020 to 2022, job postings increased by over 6.2 million — but less than 2% were in-office jobs, while job postings for remote jobs increased by 10%.

Just last month (January 2023) Forbes reported, “Over the past two years, hybrid and remote positions have dominated advertised vacancies, reshaping workplace norms and giving employees power when it comes to flexibility and where they work.”

Yet, as you’re experiencing, many employers are blundering through this sea change, alienating employees and job seekers alike. Your CEO may be untutored in how to manage and communicate with the company’s employees.

Wrestling with a plan

You asked what I think. This problem will vex many companies and workers for time to come. Some are wrestling with new plans but, as you suggest, management cannot do this alone. A CEO laying down the law is, frankly, silly when the issue impacts everyone in the company. The harder the CEO comes down, the harder it’s going to be to re-fill jobs when you and others quit.

I believe this is a huge opportunity for employers to save money on traditional office infrastructure – money they can then invest in their employees (rent subsidies for those who work from home?) and in collaboration tools (which might include new software and better but lest costly collaboration spaces). But a workable plan that’s intended to avoid business disruptions requires input from all stakeholders.

In your case:

  • Four hours of commuting that can be spent working (and living!) is a no-brainer. They could let you work from home unless something makes it impossible to do your work.
  • If your company’s global teams can work virtually, why can’t local ones?
  • The very fact that there is an “exceptions process” suggests the company recognizes remote work is an option. (So, I would fully exploit it and see what concessions you can get!)

Why a return to the office may not be best for business

One thing is clear at all these very confused companies: They don’t know how to manage work and workers remotely. So get ahead of this. I suggest explaining to your management how you’ll get your work done at home, how four hours not commuting translates into more time working and higher productivity (be ready to prove it), and how this will save them (and you) money.

This is where an organized effort of colleagues is key. As a team, you must make a clear commitment that you will deliver as promised, and suggest some (creative new?) metrics so your managers will feel confident about what you’re doing not matter where you are.

I can’t emphasize this enough: You may have to explain it to them. That means you and your co-workers may have to take the initiative. (There’s also power in numbers.) Your bosses and their crack HR team probably have not figured it all out on their own. In such times of upset, there are usually opportunities, too. With things in flux, everybody loves a good “solution.” You and your peers could be the ones to suggest solutions!

The costs of ordering a return to the office

According to CNBC, while about 50% of corporate leaders — including Apple, Citigroup, Disney, Goldman Sachs and Salesforce — are demanding their employees come back full time, many employers could pay a stiff price. Your employer needs to think twice!

In Forbes, Doug Dennerline, CEO of Betterworks, says forcing a return to the office will cause a spike in turnover: “Organizations are guaranteed to lose great people, not only for lack of flexibility, but because many of the best employees moved out of expensive cities during the pandemic and won’t be moving back.”

I agree. I think employers that post all-remote jobs will snag more of the best workers.

The other part of a strategic answer to “Where will we work?” is to start quietly developing some options should this go south. Many companies now explicitly advertise jobs that are all remote. So your employer is facing competition. Hedge your bets. Start interviewing. (If this is the path you take, be aware of the 6 ways to avoid trouble when you resign.)

While you may feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, you’re not alone, and the job market may be on your side. The question to be asked may not be whether we should return to the office, but whether we should return to the same employer.

Have you returned to the office (if that’s the kind of work you do)? What’s your employer’s policy? Did a desire to work remotely lead you to change employers? If you’re an employer, how are you handling this? Do you believe work will increasingly be done remotely?

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