An About-Face on Return to Office

Some organizations that promised remote work have changed their minds, trying to boost business but sparking protests from workers.

In early May, a company published a long report highlighting the benefits of remote work. Surveying business leaders in 10 countries, the report found that more than three-quarters agreed that the flexibility to work at any time and from any location has boosted productivity.

The company’s own leaders, however, seem to have disagreed with these findings. Shortly after the survey’s publication, they ordered most of the company’s employees back to the office at least two days a week.

Call it the great about-face. For more than a year, firms in a number of sectors have been pressing employees to return to the office—part-time at first, but increasingly full-time. Just last month, in fact, 600,000 US workers faced new return-to-office mandates, according to JLL, a commercial real-estate services firm. But the latest wrinkle is that some of those companies had previously promised remote arrangements to their workforces. The breaching of this agreement has sparked a new level of resentment over an issue already highly sensitive to both leaders and workers alike. “Employees feel that their bosses have gone back on their word,” says Michelle Seidel, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s Global Technology Industry team.

Many leaders have long maintained that collaboration and productivity are higher with people in the office. Firms permitted remote or hybrid work at first because of lockdowns, then because of a severe labor shortage created later in the pandemic. But drops in worker productivity and increased pressures from a slowing economy have emboldened leaders to focus more on the face-to-face aspect of their business. “If leaders have come to the conclusion that returning to the office is the right thing, then I don’t know that I would apologize for it,” says Juan Pablo González, sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Professional Services practice.

In response, workers are quick to point out that some of them moved away from company locations or lost childcare help when they were allowed to work remotely. Companies that have changed their minds have faced some angry petitions from workers. “CEOs run the risk of ruining all the goodwill they built up during the pandemic,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in the firm’s CHRO practice.

In the US, office occupancy remains at around 50% of pre-pandemic levels, a level that has held steady since the beginning of the year, according to office-building-services firm Kastle Systems (the rate is higher in other parts of the world). It remains to be seen if the new mandates push the rates higher. In some cases, organizations gave employees multiple months’ notice that office attendance was going to be required again. Brittney Molitor, a Korn Ferry executive senior partner, says one of her industrial clients gave its workers a year’s notice before mandating that they all return to the office full-time on April 3.

There’s some early research that younger workers who work remotely don’t get as many development or mentorship opportunities as they would if they were in the office; there’s still no consensus, however, on where work is done most productively. Some firms have been racing to fill the knowledge gap, having realized their employees may balk at remote-work policy changes without solid numbers to back them up, says Jamen Graves, Korn Ferry’s global co-leader for CEO and enterprise leadership development. “This tension hasn’t helped with work engagement. They’ve lost the flexibility that the pandemic created,” he says.

For her part, Molitor says she expects some employees who are unhappy with these policy changes to start looking for new jobs even as they return to the office. There may be other side effects too, she says, such as workers trying to find ways around office mandates. “Good HR leaders know that, and they have to be at the forefront of the conversations with leaders about why they’re making the decisions,” Molitor says.


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