What to Consider Before Ordering Staff Back to the Office

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Is working remotely a thing of the past? Not so fast say many members of the labour force.  Approximately one in five employed Canadians reported doing most of their work from home as of May, down from 24% in January1 and 30% during the first year of the pandemic.2 While this represents a slow, but steady, shift away from remote work, hybrid models remain popular. Efforts by some companies to institute hardline “back to the office” policies have evolved into games of chicken with staff members who know they have options in a hot candidate’s market. Which model is preferable and what can we expect in the future? Opinions vary. 

Hybrid Work Arrangements in a Candidate’s Market

While some companies are happy to have their staff working remotely, or at least partially so, others would prefer their staff to return to the workplace on a full time basis immediately. Making that happen is a matter of leverage and, in the current labour market, employees have plenty. 

“Our clients that have insisted that their job cannot be done remotely have lost candidate after candidate after candidate, because nobody is interested,” says Henry Goldbeck, President of Goldbeck Recruiting. “If you don’t offer some hybrid flexibility, you’re shrinking your candidate pool by 75% or more, in terms of qualified, experienced people who would otherwise be interested in your position.”3

Companies such as Apple have had to scale back the pace of their return-to-office plans in the wake of employee backlash. 

“A lot of companies that had been in the news standing firm on their return policies did back up,” said Elise Freedman, a workforce-transformation-practice leader at Korn Ferry who is helping companies coordinate their return-to-office plans.“It’s a very interesting situation.”4

What’s more, return to work policies are often toothless. In a study reported on in Fortune Magazine 42.3% of respondents said that there were no consequences to employees who worked in the office less days than they were asked to.5

While pandemic anxiety is undoubtedly a factor in employees’ hesitancy to return to work, a new-found taste for work-life balance is likely an even larger factor. 

“People are at dinner, the movies, they’re around. People are learning to live with COVID,” said Freedman. “What they liked was the flexibility.”4

Elon Musk Says Remote Work No Longer Acceptable

While many companies take a “wait and see” approach, there are exceptions. Elon Musk, no stranger to controversy, told Tesla’s executive staff that working remotely was “no longer acceptable”.6 When one Twitter user pushed back, Musk doubled down, saying that execs who didn’t want to return to the office should “pretend to work somewhere else”.6 During a Q&A with Twitter employees, Musk flew in the face of former CEO Jack Dorsey’s “indefinite” work from home policy, telling his potentially-soon-to-be staff that he much prefers the work-in-person model, although he did allow that he will make exceptions for those who were doing “excellent” work remotely.7

Pros and Cons of Remote Work

Those who share Musk’s preference for physical attendance often use terms such as “company culture” or “fostering relationships”. According to this school of thought there is simply no substitute for the collaboration and informal learning opportunities that occur serendipitously at the office. 

Proponents of remote work are quick to point out that chatty co-workers can actually decrease productivity in the office, while hours lost to the daily commute are another detriment. 

Challenges of Returning to Work

Companies that do mandate a return to the workplace should focus their efforts on communications in order to minimize damage to staff morale. Researcher Steven Davis outlines the conundrum.

“For employees to return happily to the office, the boss needs a compelling answer to this question: Why must I spend 30, 60, 90 minutes a day on commuting, when I’ve shown I can do my job from home?”5

Companies directing their staff to switch to a hybrid model will have to consider the details of their policies. 

“If you let people totally choose when to come in themselves, they tend to pick Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so the offices are full on those days and empty on Monday and Friday,” said Freedman. “The people who do come in then are like, ‘Why am I here? I’m on Zooms all day.’4

Time will tell how it all plays out. Mark Rose, chief executive of the commercial real estate firm Avison Young, told the Globe and Mail that he doesn’t expect an across the board return to the office for another five years. This, of course, is speculative, as any number of developments could play out in the meantime. Each company is different and management must do what they think is best. What must be avoided are blind, reactionary moves that fail to consider impacts on productivity, recruiting, and retention. 

Cited Sources
1 “More People Are Heading Back to the Workplace, but That Doesn’t Mean They All like It | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, June 11, 2022. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-return-to-office-pressure-workers-1.6484707
2 Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. “Working from Home during the COVID-19 Pandemic, April 2020 to June 2021.” The Daily – , August 4, 2021. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210804/dq210804b-eng.htm
3 Goldbeck, Henry. “April 2022 Labour Force Update.” Goldbeck Recruiting, May 6, 2022. https://www.goldbeck.com/sections/observations-advice/april-2022-labour-force-update/
4 Velsey, Kim. “The 3-Day Return to Office Is, so Far, a Dud.” Curbed. Curbed, June 15, 2022. https://www.curbed.com/2022/06/hybrid-3-day-return-office-apple-google-remote-work.html
5 Berger, Chloe. “A Huge Number of Employees Are Rebelling against in-Office Mandates.” Fortune. Fortune, June 14, 2022. https://fortune.com/2022/06/14/workers-rebelling-against-return-to-work-policies/
6 Porter, Jon. “Elon Musk Reportedly Declares Remote Work ‘No Longer Acceptable’ at Tesla.” The Verge. The Verge, June 1, 2022. https://www.theverge.com/2022/6/1/23149784/elon-musk-tesla-remote-work-leaked-email-40-hours
7 Sato, Mia, and Alex Heath. “Elon Musk Says Twitter Employees Doing ‘Excellent’ Work Can Continue Working from Home.” The Verge. The Verge, June 16, 2022. https://www.theverge.com/2022/6/16/23171070/elon-musk-twitter-takeover-all-hands-meeting-work-from-home