Paying to End the Return-to-Office Debate

Extra cash to show up at the workplace is one thing most at-home workers say will get them back to the office. Should managers open their wallets?

To get remote workers back to the office, leaders have tried wowing them with new office furniture, enticing them with free lunches, or, on the flip side, threatening them with firings or lower bonuses.

Now those remote workers say that one incentive will get them to come back: more money. Among hybrid workers, 55% would consider higher pay for increased in-person work a big inducement, according to a new survey from the University of Chicago. Forty-four percent of full-time remote employees feel the same.

Although the notion frustrates managers, they may be tempted to just pay. US firms are already expected to offer average pay raises of around 4% in 2024, according to a recent Korn Ferry survey. What’s a little more? After all, office occupancy is still hovering at about 50% of pre-pandemic levels in most major US cities, and many leaders believe that they need people in the office to maximize productivity.

But experts caution that having workers show up just because they’re paid to do so won’t necessarily guarantee increased engagement or productivity. “You have to convince them that being in the office allows good things to happen,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

About one-third of Americans work at home, down from 42% at the height of the pandemic, but still considerably higher than the 24% in 2019. In the recent University of Chicago survey, 30% of hybrid workers said their part-time presence in the office is mandated by their employer.

After three years of debate over the merits of remote versus in-person work, we now have evidence that certain activities produce better results when everyone is working in the same place. According to a study by Microsoft, in-person project kickoffs generate 14% more ideas. People who onboard in person score better on a raft of metrics 90 days later, including being roughly 10% more likely to ask teammates for input and feedback, and 7% more likely to discuss problems with, and receive performance-improving feedback from, their manager. As for in-person team bonding, 85% of employees said it would motivate them to return to the office.

But many companies continue to push return-to-office policies with more forceful measures, instead of pointing to the data. Over the past several months, multiple large technology and finance firms have warned remote employees that they’re at risk of missing out on increased pay and career opportunities. Some firms have even threatened them with the loss of their jobs if they refuse to return to the office.

Experts say many employees feel that their in-office trips, along with the price of commuting—getting dressed, traveling, buying lunch—simply aren’t worth it. Higher pay likely won’t solve that problem. “‘Pay me more’ tells me that the conversation is not on the right plane,” Tapia says.

Remote employees might want more money to show up at the office, but they may not believe they’ll actually get it. Indeed, the pay-me-more conversation might signal a realization by some employees that eventually they’ll have to come back, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice.

With the softening job market, employees’ vulnerability to layoffs likely weighs more on their minds, says Tom McMullen, leader of Korn Ferry’s North America Total Rewards expertise group. “I think the hybrid work environment will become the norm, and I see an increasing condition of the employee contract being the employer’s commitment to this model,” he says.


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Organization Strategy capabilities.