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May 3, 2023

Who will win the great return-to-office debate?

When it comes to return-to-office plans, there is more than one perspective. Author and futurist Alexandra Levit explores the two sides and explains how organisations can achieve success no matter who wins the debate.

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In workforce and HR circles, one of the main events of 2023 so far has been the return-to-office (RTO) debate – and specifically the opposing viewpoints of those who want to remain remote and those who yearn to be in the office again.

Last year, it seemed like most companies had settled into harmonious hybrid work arrangements, with many mandating that office-based employees report to physical locations one to two days per week. But recently, a growing number of organisations, including Apple and Starbucks, are walking back remote-work policies. And new Congressional legislation aims to decrease telework options for federal workers in the U.S.

Some employees aren’t accepting the changes. SHRM reports that weeks after Disney CEO Bob Iger said he would require corporate employees to return to the office four days a week, 2,300 of them signed a petition asking him to reconsider the policy.

Through companies like Apple, Starbucks, and Disney, we see the pro return-to-office perspective. But it’s clearly not the only point of view. Let’s summarize the main points of each argument in the return-to-office debate.

The pro-office point of view

In his memo to employees, Disney’s Iger stated that “creativity is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do at Disney. In a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors."

Humans are social creatures who bond with one another and often ideate more effectively in a team context. This is why many leaders want people back in the office.

Then there are the financial realities – at least for organisations based in the U.S. As Bloomberg recently reported, U.S. cities and states grant billions in tax incentives to companies who open offices in their areas. These agreements often include an expectation that companies will deliver something in return: full-time jobs, done primarily on-site. These new jobs bring new payroll and tax revenues— but not if they’re performed remotely. Naturally, leaders don’t want to jeopardize these lucrative incentives.  

The pro-remote point of view

As mentioned earlier, Disney employees petitioned their CEO to continue to work remotely. They asserted the RTO order could, "have unintended consequences that cause long-term harm to the company. This policy will slow, or even reverse, our post-COVID recovery and growth by creating critical resource shortages and causing irreplaceable institutional knowledge loss.”

For those advocating for more flexible work policies, there is plenty of data to support their position. For example, FutureForum just released findings that workers with flexible arrangements were 57% more likely to say that their company culture has improved over the past two years compared with those required to be on-site five days a week.

Employees with full schedule flexibility reported 39% higher productivity scores than those with no ability to adjust their working hours. Compared to the 35% of workers who are fully in-office, flexible workers are equally or more likely to feel connected to their immediate teams, their direct manager, and their company’s values.

Meanwhile, the same research revealed that a lack of schedule flexibility dramatically worsened retention and burnout. Employees with immovable work schedules said they were 2.5 times more likely to “definitely” look for a new job in the next year. And employees with no ability to shift their work schedules were 26% more likely to say they were burned out.

How to succeed no matter which side prevails

As a futurist, I think it’s likely that most organisations will permanently choose a hybrid approach. But no matter which type of work becomes more commonplace, there are several things HR professionals can do today to ease the transition.

Understand the cultural nuances of RTO orders

If you are pro-RTO, know that your degree of success in pushing through these orders will depend on geography, workforce composition, and what competitors in your space are doing. For example, in certain areas and among certain demographics, DEI factors come into play when insisting that employees commute to an office. Research from Future Forum shows that people of color, women, and working moms value location flexibility the most.

Factor in the generational shift

RTO decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum – they should consider the generational shift that is starting to occur today. As more employees from younger generations step into leadership roles, there will be fewer leaders who are married to being in the physical office space in the same way that many members of older generations have grown accustomed to in their careers. Consult these younger leaders early and often to ensure a balanced perspective.

Keep up with technology advances

Ongoing global disruptions, such as adverse climate events, may make it difficult to count on being in-office. And, as such, hybrid and remote work may become increasingly appealing. Your organisation should ensure it’s prepared for the next potential switchover to remote work. The ever-increasing sophistication of technologies like digital collaboration tools and advanced HCM software is only making it easier for people to work anywhere, anytime.

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