The return-to-office war may finally be reaching a compromise, but companies will be the biggest losers
It seems as if the return-to-office battle has reached a stalemate. For the past couple of years, it’s been a tug-of-war between bosses who want employees back at their desks and workers who would rather be anywhere but.
After a lot of back-and-forth, both camps seem to be inching closer to an agreement. The latest data from WFH Research by Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis shows that employees want to work remotely about 2.7 days a week. That’s been the case for much of 2021, swinging upward during spring and early summer of 2022 as new coronavirus variants gripped the nation, before trending back downward in July.
Employers have done a bit more of the shifting. In July 2020, companies only planned to allow remote work 1.5 days a week. They’ve since let up on that stance, increasingly allotting more days for workers to work from home, now up to about 2.3 days a week as of October. It could be the start of a compromise, in which neither party is going whole hog on only remote or in-person work but instead choosing the middle ground.
While companies spent much of the pandemic at employees’ behest during a tight labor market, they were ready to put their foot down as threats of a recession loomed. Many used company culture as a stand-in for the office, assuring that in-person collaboration would be better for productivity and for business. Look no further than Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who told Fortune in February that the secret sauce to an organization is collaboration between younger employees and other more experienced ones.
“For Goldman Sachs to retain that cultural foundation, we have to bring people together,” he claimed as he ushered everyone back to the office, one of the first CEOs to do so. Some companies followed suit post–Labor Day, with employers like Apple and Peloton rolling out office mandates.
It worked in the beginning. Security firm Kastle Systems found that following the early September mandates, more workers were back in their cubicles than ever since the pandemic started. But the initial uptick in office traffic dropped down from 47.5% to 47.3% in one week.
Perhaps that’s because many workers feel discouraged from going into the office when the office is, well, empty. And because employers were wrong about the connection between office and company culture. “It’s easier to be a manager in person, and it’s easier to return to what you know,” Sarah Lewis-Kulin, vice president of global recognition at the Great Place to Work Institute, told Fortune. “But there wasn’t some beautiful heyday three years ago where everyone felt included and connected to a culture.”
It seems then that hybrid work is emerging as the clear winner, as WFH Research suggests. Hybrid workers report stronger loyalty to their employer than fully remote or in-person employees, plus they’re happier and more productive. Meanwhile, companies are still seeing employees where they want them, at least a few days a week.
No wonder hybrid work is shaping up to be the ultimate compromise. Bosses just need to make sure they implement it correctly.
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