Return-to-Office: One Size Does Not Fit All

Tired of a peanut butter spread approach to in-office mandates? You're not alone. We are proposing a smarter strategy that focuses on how work gets done.

Back to office policies are here to stay with many companies mandating five days a week in the office - for all employees, no matter their role.

Companies are touting team collaboration, bonding and engagement as drivers for calling people back to the office, according to a recent Chief Executive poll. But the reality is, employees are facing a paradox in the office: They find themselves working alone and sitting on the same Zoom calls they did at home. In-office mandates are not driving connection and collaboration, leaving many employees to wonder, “What’s the point?”

Employees have been clear on their preference with a staggering 98% wanting to work remotely … at least part of the time. If that’s not an option, they are responding with their feet. In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) Podcast with Gartner, 65% of employees say a return-to-work policy will impact their decision to stay and 53% cite it as the reason they are looking for a new job.

Being back in the office isn’t helping performance, either. In a FlexJobs study, 77% of workers say they are more productive working remotely than in a traditional office environment. And a Forbes 2024 workforce trends survey found that fewer than “5% of companies operating with remote or hybrid arrangements reported decreased performance.” Even organizations that are mandating a minimum number of days per week aren’t showing higher performance.

So, we ask again: “What’s the point?” In light of this compelling data, why are so many companies taking a “peanut butter spread” approach by calling everyone back to the office?

The party line is that all employees should be treated equally. If plant workers need to be onsite to do their jobs, knowledge workers glued to their computers must tag along - every day and all day. There’s something to be said for that … but it ignores the reality of how work gets done.

Someone who builds cars can’t do that from their living room. But what about a data analyst whose work might be hindered in the office? My Gen Z nephew is a great example of this. He was hired by a technology firm during the COVID era when work from home was the norm. As a cloud warehouse administrator, that worked well for him. But now that he’s been called back to the office five days a week, things are different.

“My bosses don’t get how chaotic the office environment can be for data scientists. When I’m working on a complex data analysis, it can take days longer if I’m interrupted by frequent meetings, constant coworker requests and other disruptions. A hybrid schedule with work-from-home flexibility drastically increases my efficiency.”

For employees, there’s also the simple math of going to the office. According to Owl Lab's 2023 State of Hybrid Work Report, employees spend an average of $51 a day going to the office (commuting, meals, child and pet care, etc.). That’s versus an estimated $18 a day for hybrid workers. In a time when the cost of living is high and salary increases are scarce, that’s significant.

As my nephew explains, the cost of returning to work goes far beyond gas money:

“On the days I’m headed to the office, I spend at least an hour prepping the night before. Making a lunch, ironing clothes, packing a gym bag, ensuring I have what I need. Add a long, twice-daily commute and I lose two or three hours a day … That’s lost time that helped me achieve work-life balance and enabled me to be a better employee. It’s time I could spend at my computer, accomplishing more for my team.
Removing work-from-home options comes at a big cost, especially for those of us hired into hybrid work environments. And this inflexibility will drive us to find other jobs or demand higher salaries to offset the losses.

My nephew’s story isn’t unique. According to HBR, 67% of employees think that going to the office requires more effort than it did pre-pandemic and 60% say the cost outweighs the benefits.

What’s our solution for more time in the office without losing employee autonomy and productivity?

It starts with designating a minimum number of team days per month or year, not per week. This allows leaders the flexibility to design a strategy that leverages in-office time for meaningful growth opportunities and collaboration while leaving heads down work at home. For data scientists, this means they are not coding in a busy office. But they are coming in to meet with leaders to understand the business drivers for building the code in the first place.

This strategy has nothing to do with it being a Monday or a Tuesday, but everything to do with the type of work being done and the project lifecycle. It asks leaders and teams to co-create a strategy that pulls them to the office for connection and engagement – the driver for in-office mandates in the first place.

So next time you’re making a PB&J, think about it. It may be easier to make that for yourself at home. But how fun would it be to make PB&Js together in next week’s team lunch? Unless someone is allergic to peanuts.

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Anne Mounts
April 25, 2024
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