Is Back to School the New Back to the Office? Maybe this time?

Faced with lagging productivity, employers are getting serious about bringing people back to the office. Will it work this time? 

For three years, employers have been announcing September as the “Back to the Office” push, believing that summer vacations are over and kids are back in school, it’s a good time for employees to commit to the hybrid work schedule. 

Yet every year, employers have announced plans, but it hasn’t really happen. We had the Delta and Omicron strains of COVID spoil things, followed by rampant burnout and the rise of remote work rebels who refused to go into the office. Now more employers are demanding their workers come back to the office. For real.

Will it work?

“It feels like the last three years have been work-from-home three, and return-to-office zero,”  Stanford scholar Nicholas Bloom, who studies hybrid work, said in a recent hybrid work webinar. “I would not expect any big changes.”

Since January, 1.7 million employees have been put under new return-to-office requirements, according to public data gathered by JLL. Last spring, as many as 65% of employers had some in-office requirement, and only a third of them left the decision up to employees, according to a survey by real estate firm CBRE. That compares to last year, when half of employers left that decision up to workers. 

This summer, Salesforce promised its employees that if they came to the office the company would donate $10 to charity for every day they visited the space. Earlier this year, Disney told hybrid employees they were to return four days a week, JP Morgan Chase called managing directors into the office full time, and Amazon required all employees to come back three times a week.

This fall, Meta will mandate that employees be in the office at least three days a week, an effort to crack down on “remote work rebels.” Meanwhile, Google toughened its in-office policies by telling employees that it’d be considered in personnel reviews. President Biden announced an aggressive push to get federal employees into the office this fall, and even Zoom—the cornerstone tool of remote work—asked its employees to get back to the office, too. 

Yet there’s still a disconnect between what employers say and their expectations and what their employees actually do. 

“While certainly there are individual companies that are asking for more return to office or changing their policy, the return to office is relatively flat year to date,” says Rob Sadow, CEO of Scoop Technologies, which makes software for hybrid work. “As we look forward, maybe we see a little bit of a pickup in the amount of time spent in the office, but we wouldn’t expect much at all (this fall).”  

Office occupancy has been flat, despite new calls for employees to return to the office.
Shridhar Gupta, Unsplash.

Last spring, hundreds of corporate Amazon employees held a lunchtime walkout protesting the company’s three-day-a-week office policy. Farmers Group changed its company’s remote work policy, outraging workers who bought houses and made other major decisions based on the assumption that they’d continue to work remotely.

U.S. office occupancy has continued to hover around 40% to 60% of pre-pandemic norms, despite the slew of mandates, according to data by commercial real estate firm JLL.

The crux of the conflict? Productivity is declining at the fastest rate in 75 years, amid burnout, employee disengagement, quiet quitting and the recent loud quitting and revelations that some employees are secretly doing two full-time jobs from home. Employers hope that the office will drive productivity and engagement as well as work to foster culture, collaboration, connection, mentorship and social glue that hold teams together. 

But employees want to be persuaded on why it’s a benefit to work in the office instead of the back bedroom thirty feet away from the kitchen. They’re accustomed to the flexibility and ease of remote work, parents are looking at rising childcare costs—which are climbing at twice the rate of inflation—and others are avoiding that dreaded commute. (Although research shows that a commute can actually be good for you.) 

Parents struggle to balance in-office work and childcare, as early childcare costs have skyrocketed.

It’s vital that employers make the office worth it for employees. 

Alan Moore says his Bozeman, Montana financial firm, XY Partners, is working to demonstrate to its employees why the office can be beneficial to them. For instance, it has hosted in-person collaboration events and measured whether it really increased collaboration or not. 

“We want to give a person a reason to come into the office,” Moore says. “And we actually are finding that it’s a better way to see folks more regularly throughout the workweek versus just trying to create blanketed mandates saying they need to be there.”

To make hybrid work, each team must think through the work that needs to be accomplished and what each individual needs to do their best, says Debbie Lovich, managing director and a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. Then, teams should set the work model to meet those needs. 

Lovich has conducted research that found managers and individual workers differ in their opinions on where they do their best work

Not everyone works best in the same environments. Introverts tend to prefer remote work versus being in the office. Windows, Unsplash.

Managers prefer to mentor, coach and oversee employees in person, but the rise of remote work makes them “flex a new muscle” and decide what work gets done where and when—and how they inspire teams across distributed environments, says Lovich. 

The answer will depend on their team’s workflow and the individuals who make up the teams. Often, introverts, neurodiverse people and marginalized employees prefer to work remotely, while more senior workers and extroverts often prefer being in-person. 

“A manager needs to think about not only the work, but their team,” Lovich says. Less than half of managers and executives don’t believe their organizations are giving them the support and training to support their employees who work flexibly. 

Lovich says managers must rethink how work is done now, and that includes looking back at the week, at how much in-office work was conducted and reviewing whether it was a success. What worked? What didn’t? What should be changed for the next week? Maybe there’s a big deadline coming up, so the work model for the following week should look different based on the work changing. 

Managers may work best in different settings than their teams, often preferring in-person environments.
LinkedIn Business, Unsplash.

Employers must also decide whether they pay for office space and expensive wages to have offices in major markets, such as New York, San Francisco or Chicago but ultimately they get people in the office for an hour to three days a week for face-to-face mentoring and innovation—which makes it worth it, says Bloom of Stanford.

Or, perhaps they go fully-remote, which may save money on a lease and open up recruiting nationally or even globally. “But it’s harder to mentor, harder to innovate and build culture,” Bloom says. And fully-remote work is driving an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, exhaustion, depression, pain and stress.

As employers sort out the hybrid equation for their employees, there is no doubt the old way of working in the office five-days-a-week is going extinct. The number of companies with employees working full-time in the office dropped to 39% in August from 49% at the start of 2023, according to Scoop Technologies’ Flex Report, which analyzes hybrid work data.

Sadow predicts that in the coming years, as few as 15% of US companies or less will have corporate employees in the office five days a week. 

One big reason is recruiting. The labor market remains strong: unemployment hit a historic low of 3.5% in August. Companies that are requiring people to go to the office five days a week were growing their headcount at half the rate of companies that were offering workers the ability to work at flexible locations. Another is long-term leases. As companies unwind their lease obligations over time, they will likely move to more flexible work schedules, he says.

Rather than set company-wide specific days in office, employers are increasingly opting to empower teams to establish norms on how and where work gets done. This allows companies to set guardrails on time spent in office—such as at least two days a week—but enables teams to hammer out the specifics, says Sadow. 

Moore of XY Partners says mandates aren’t the way to go. “There is a fundamental shift that we employers have to embrace,” he says. “There are pros and cons, the burnout, overworking and being connected 24/7 when working remotely. But in general, we are seeing a much happier workforce when they have the flexibility. We have to slow down and really define the why behind the office.”