The return to the office once seemed inevitable. A new study shows companies are already reversing course

March 9, 2023, 10:52 AM UTC
Companies continue to struggle with getting employees back to the office–and some are already reversing their mandates.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Extensive headlines about companies ordering employees back to the office might make the return to the office seem inevitable. Do these headlines reflect the reality–or are they just clickbait for anxious workers who want to avoid the threat of a forced return?

Recent survey data from The Conference Board provides a surprising insight into how companies are approaching hybrid workplace policies. After surveying 1,100 corporate executives across several industries around the globe, including 24% from the U.S., the findings revealed that the return-to-office mandates of companies such as Amazon, Disney, and Starbucks represent the exception, not the rule. In fact, of the CEOs from the U.S., a puny 3%  indicated they would decrease the availability of remote work in their companies.

Meanwhile, 5% of respondents said they would expand their hybrid work policies. Even Elon Musk, after initially ordering all Twitter staff back to the office, has now reversed course. He embraced remote work by closing Twitter’s Seattle and Singapore offices, telling all staff to work remotely.

Moreover, many employees are pushing back strongly against the return-to-office mandates, leading to a rise in worker power and even unionization as a response to these top-down dictates. Such trends show that the forced return to the office may reverse in the next few months.

In short, it’s likely that 2023 will see a slight expansion of employees working remotely. These findings suggest that most companies are finding their hybrid workplace policy to be a successful solution for their organization.

Of course, there are challenges to be surmounted. One of my clients, a mid-size I.T. services company, initially struggled with the transition to a hybrid workplace policy, as their industry requires face-to-face interactions with customers. They soon realized that the lack of collaboration and communication between remote and in-office employees resulted in a decline in productivity and employee satisfaction.

I recommended several measures to improve collaboration and communication, such as weekly one-on-ones between supervisors and supervisees and setting clear expectations for communication and collaboration. These measures have helped to stabilize the company’s performance, and the hybrid workplace policy is now working well for them.

One of the key benefits of a hybrid workplace policy is the increased flexibility it provides for employees and the lack of a commute, which helps boost productivity. For example, a survey by Mercer of 800 HR leaders reported that 94% found that the staff at their companies were more or equally productive working remotely compared to working in the office. A two-year survey by Great Place to Work of more than 800,000 employees showed that the shift to working remotely during the pandemic boosted worker productivity by 6% on average.

What about less productive employees? As Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup, said during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, “measure productivity very carefully.” By measuring productivity, companies can identify which employees are struggling with remote work and provide them with the coaching and support they need to be more productive. This might include returning to the office–and that’s what Fraser has instructed some of her employees at Citi to do, in order to provide them with a more structured and collaborative environment.

Remote work can offer better work-life balance, as well as the ability to work from locations that may be more convenient for employees. This can lead to increased job satisfaction and employee retention, which can be especially important in a competitive job market. Consider a survey by Cisco of 28,000 full-time employees: 78% of respondents said that remote and hybrid work improved their overall well-being.

Additionally, the hybrid workplace policy can also lead to cost savings for companies, as Musk discovered at Twitter. By reducing the need for office space, companies can lower their overhead costs, and potentially save on costs such as electricity, internet, and office supplies.

However, a dangerous cognitive bias may come into play–and lead managers to persist with their initial workplace policy even if it’s not working: the sunk cost fallacy. The term refers to the tendency for people to continue investing in a decision or strategy because they have already invested resources into it, even if it’s not the most effective solution.

The hybrid workplace policy has emerged as a popular solution for many organizations, as it allows for a more flexible and adaptable approach to work. However, it’s important for leaders to be aware of the potential impact of cognitive biases on decision-making when implementing a hybrid policy. Through careful planning, advice and training, and regular reviews, companies can successfully navigate the challenges of the new, hybrid workplace and stabilize their business.

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D., helps tech and finance industry executives drive collaboration, innovation, and retention in hybrid work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of 7 books, including Never Go With Your Gut and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams.His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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