It’s been all over the news for years now: remote work has never been more prevalent in society. But in recent months, more and more companies have been discarding what many employees thought was their “new normal” and requiring workers to report in person once more. Half of business leaders in a Microsoft survey said their company either already requires or will require employees to return to the office full time in the next year.
Interestingly, the tech industry is a major proponent of working in person, even if only a few days per week. Even Zoom, the company that made remote work so successful during the Covid-19 pandemic, has ordered its employees back to the office. Meta, the tech giant that owns Facebook and Instagram, has also implemented a mandatory 3 days in-office policy as of September 2023. The companies cite increased collaboration and improved productivity among the reasons for returning.
Even the U.S. government isn’t immune to the return-to-office discussion. President Biden has demanded that federal employees stop remote work and appear in person once more. The decision was made to “enable us to deliver better results for the American people.”
The problem? This requirement doesn’t align with what employees want. Currently, 13% of the U.S. workforce is fully remote and 28% is hybrid. What’s more, 56% of employees said their jobs can be done remotely. As a result, return-to-office mandates are causing drama in workplaces nationwide. Tensions are running high and employees are taking their “right” to remote work personally. Threaten to take it away, and things turn nasty. In fact, many employees claim that they’ll never go back to commuting daily.
While conflicting perspectives on remote work are not new, the tension seems to be escalating. From employees staging protest walkouts and threatening to unionize to companies tracking in-office attendance and firing those who don’t comply, the issue is becoming more and more polarized. Add to this an entirely separate conversation about the income disparity among those who are able to work remotely versus the lowest-paid workers who are at the workplace full time.
So what can be done about finding a solution? First, let’s examine the opposing sides of the issue.
Reasons Companies Want to Eliminate Remote Work
Company policies aren’t made by evil executives sitting in their corner offices, cackling while dreaming up ways to make employees’ lives more difficult. These decisions are made by real people with the real responsibility of doing what’s best for the company. There are many considerations they must deliberate when determining whether employees should return to the office.
Company Culture and Employee Engagement
There’s a collective spirit that is built when a group of people consistently spend time together. This culture of belonging was massively affected during the Covid-19 pandemic when all employees were isolated and thrown into remote work. The psychology of being a team member and working toward a collective goal is inherently damaged when the setting is removed.
Commercial Real Estate and Leases
Among the U.S. government’s reasons for returning employees to the office is the cost of empty buildings. A government report recently found that billions of taxpayer dollars are being wasted on offices that are standing unused. Company offices are facing similar issues, as even New York City skyscrapers are corporate ghost towns. The impacts of remote work on the economy include the effects on commercial landlords and their lenders.
Conflicting studies have reported the results of remote work on employee productivity. Some statistics show that productivity increased along with morale as workers had more space and fewer time and cost constraints related to work. Yet other studies report that remote workers have become less productive as they become more disconnected from the company and their coworkers. At this time, there is no concrete answer to the question of whether remote employees are more or less productive. But employers are undoubtedly more uncomfortable supervising workers they cannot see in action.
Collaboration and Innovation
The meeting of diverse perspectives is proven to yield new ideas, and companies have seen an impact on creativity and innovation as collaboration opportunities have declined. The opportunities for hands-on training and mentorship are also severely affected by having employees isolated in different locations. Employers see these as detrimental to the health of the company, but they are also issues affecting employee growth and development.
Reasons Employees Embrace Remote Work
Most employees who want to work remotely are looking to make work fit into their lives, instead of the other way around. They desire a better work-life balance that prioritizes their activities outside of their careers.
A major benefit of remote work is the flexibility and time savings that come with living steps away from the office. Commuting time is eliminated, and even the time it takes to walk down the hall to ask a coworker a question or the time spent going out to lunch is gone. Employees use this time to connect with their families, enjoy hobbies, and take care of themselves through exercise or relaxation.
Along with time savings, many of the costs involved in a longer workday are cut. The cost of gas and wear and tear on a vehicle are gone with the lack of a commute. Parents can cut back on extended childcare hours. Pet owners can drop doggie daycare or in-home pet care costs. The financial savings of remote work for the employee add up quickly.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Unfortunately, biases and racism still exist in many workplaces—usually unconsciously. Many people of color have found that remote work reduces the microaggressions they faced in the office. Additionally, neurodivergent and disabled employees are finding that being able to work from home has positive benefits in the form of accessibility and inclusion. For example, an autistic employee who struggles with in-person interactions may be more comfortable meeting with others from behind a screen.
Greater Employment Options
When geographical barriers are eliminated, job opportunities increase. Employees celebrate that they can find the right fit for their skills, experience, and cultural preferences more easily. Remote opportunities also help to level the playing field when it comes to location-based salary disparities.
Employee well-being is shaped by many of the benefits stated above. Reducing financial burdens, lessening uncomfortable interactions, and increasing quality time outside of work all contribute to a positive mindset and prevent burnout.
Finding a Compromise on Remote Work
The only way forward in solving this debate is for everyone to work together. A dialogue between companies and their workers must be open, nonjudgmental, and accepting. Companies should aim to engage their workforce to discuss what’s working, what’s not, and evaluate options for improvement.
Experts agree that black-and-white statements like “In-office is better for company culture” or “Remote work shows that you care about employees” are not productive. Both sides should be understanding that the solution involves finding a balance. Some companies may benefit from hiring outside consultants to bridge the communication gap and recommend options that compromise for the greater good. The goal is to prioritize the interest of the collective company while not alienating the individual worker.
So what is the end result? A flexible company policy is the best approach for employers to take. The fact is, some jobs simply can’t be completed effectively through remote work. Incorporating acknowledgements like these into an official policy sets expectations and eliminates confusion.
Cultural Shifts and Logistical Changes
Folding remote or hybrid work into the company culture is a challenge that must be solved from within. Employers should provide a framework with opportunities for connection and belonging, but the employees themselves must take advantage of these opportunities.
Logistically, some investment may be involved to make workers feel more comfortable returning to the office. Studies have shown that interactions between coworkers decrease in open floor plan environments. If possible, consider providing cubicles or even mini offices (with doors!) to allow individual spaces away from sneezes, aggressive gum chewing, and loud talkers. This could sway employees to embrace the office a bit more.
The bottom line on this debate is that it’s all about getting work done while allowing people a more comfortable environment. Whether that means work is done in the office or remotely, the company must be able to support its business operations effectively. The people making decisions and the people affected by those decisions can work together to develop a compromise that everyone can agree to—for the greater good.