Butts in Seats or Flexibility? Redefining the 'Return to Office' Experience
“Ina, what are you seeing in the market about returning to the office?”
This is the question literally every client and every employee asks me these days. Isn’t it funny that we are still talking about returning to the office more than three years after we left our offices?
The headlines are everywhere:
But what’s the real story?
Ninety-eight percent of employees want to work remotely at least part of the time, according to Forbes RTO statistics, and yet 63% of CEOs predict a full return to in-office working by the end of 2026, according to KPMG’s Global CEO Outlook, which surveyed 1,300 global chief executives. According to the Flex Report which tracks employment from 4000 companies globally, more than half of employees still aren’t in the office full time.
I understand both sides of the debate. I do like meeting in person but I really like writing this in my fuzzy pants too! And I'm not alone.
Taking the wider view, I think it’s different in metropolitan areas like Tri-State, the Bay area and Los Angeles, where traffic is bad and commutes are long versus less congested areas where it's easier to get to the office. For example, in non-urban areas, a lot workers have been back in the office since late 2020 and they don’t understand what the fuss is all about.
Where will it all land? I think hybrid wins the day! Two days in the office per week, maybe three. Seems like Tuesday and Wednesday are the days folks prefer, if New York City is any indication. But from where I sit, remote is still what most employees prefer! They love having the flexibility to participate in their family life without having to sacrifice 2+ hours per day to get ready for work and get to work. They argue that they can easily work 10 hours per day if they don’t have to commute. Productivity rates related to working from home back this up.
One of the main issues I have about “return to office” relates to what you’re doing at the office. If you’re going to require people to come back to the office, you have to rethink the “work” you’re asking them to do while they’re there. If someone works with a team that’s global, what’s the purpose of having them commute to New York to be on video calls with China and Europe all day?
This article from Inc.com talks about the different types of work – focused, collaborative and information sharing. It makes more sense to have employees come into the office for collaborative type work, like meeting with other teams for a group project. Focused work is most likely completed at home and Information sharing meetings can be done efficiently over Zoom or Teams. It requires a lot of work for management to figure out what proportion of each type of work is required for each role in the company, and then to schedule that collaborative work to be done in the office.
Why would people go to the office? Over 80% of employees would go into an office to socialize with work friends or rebuild team bonds. This article by Harvard Business Review, “To Get People Back in the Office, Make it Social,” has some great ideas for why and how to get people together -- but the most important is that managers need to intentionally create both the space and the permission for employees to spend that time reconnecting. Don’t schedule meetings during the “reconnecting” time or activities. And don’t just require butts in seats -- put thought into how often, why and what you are asking your employees to do!
My view may be shaped by the fact I am an accountant and I work mostly with accountants. These professionals tend to do a lot of analysis and solitary work, so why make them come in to an office to work alone? Make them come in for a group meeting about the close process, or make it fun and have a “dress-up day” for Halloween. Maybe the in-person activities are monthly or quarterly at a different company location for two days.
For all of you working out there, resisting the push to the office – maybe you can talk to your managers or coworkers about building in social time. Managers – I ask you think out of the box! Ask yourself what work the person does, when that work is done and who benefits from meeting in person. If you do that before you ask someone to get out of fuzzy pants and into their car, you’ll have a happier “return to work!”