‘Please, Come Back to the Office’

Offices are reopening, but more than half of employees haven’t returned. Why a yearlong effort to convince staffs to come back is stalling.

The COVID rate has been falling. Numerous firms have refurbished their offices, and, in many cases, set new deadlines for people to come back. But something is missing: the workers.

As of last week, only 43.1% of employees are working at their pre-pandemic offices, according to office key-swipe data compiled by Kastle Systems across ten major metropolitan areas. That’s the highest level since the pandemic began more than two years ago, but barely above the 40.5% level of a month ago. As Bryan Ackermann, Korn Ferry managing partner for assessment and succession, leadership and professional development, sees it, the longer people work outside the office full-time, the more difficult it will be to get them to embrace returning full-time. “It isn’t, ‘Wait another six months and it’ll normalize,’” he says.

Texas has seen the highest rate of employees returning—which isn’t to say that offices there could be described as packed. As of last week, the Austin area is at 63.0% of its usual occupancy, up from 52.9% a month earlier. The Houston and Dallas metro areas are at 55.5% and 50.9%, respectively. Both areas were slightly below 50% a month ago. On the other side of the spectrum, only about one-third of San Jose-area employees are back in offices. Occupancy is at less than 40% in and around Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, according to Kastle.

That said, plenty of employees up and down the corporate ladder are eager to get back to the office. Some senior leadership teams haven’t seen one another in two years and want to resume face-to-face meetings, Ackermann says. On the other side, numerous young employees would like to start spending workdays with coworkers, not roommates or parents.

Still, almost two-thirds of professionals tell Korn Ferry that returning to the office will have a negative impact on their mental health. Many don’t want to go back full-time, and companies fear workers might revolt if they aren’t offered some sort of accommodation. Even some high-profile corporate leaders who have been adamant about bringing everyone back to the office now admit they’ll need to make room for at least some employees to work remotely some of the time. “Remote working used to be a differentiator for employers, now it might be table stakes,” says Kristi Drew, a senior client partner and global account leader in Korn Ferry’s Financial Services practice.

To some degree, companies have been launching various back-to-office efforts for more than a year. COVID resurgences have stalled many plans, but experts say organizations haven’t created a compelling reason for people to return. Some suggest, for example, that firms could require team meetings or trainings to take place in person at the office. That could give a sense of schedule stability not only to team members but also to anyone outside the organization who works with them.

Additionally, companies might want to move away from designating some jobs as remote and others as in-office. Instead, organizations should define the outcomes they expect out of each role, then figure out how those outcomes will be met, says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources.

The current situation, in which nearly every organization—and sometimes each of its different offices—has its own return-to-office plan, is confusing to nearly everyone. No one knows who’s working where or when, or—for that matter—if ever. “How do you engage, workshop, or get your job done?” Ackermann asks. “It’s not just hybrid, it’s unpredictably hybrid.”