Return to Office: Big at Small Firms?

New data shows that smaller firms are three times more likely than large to require people to be in the office. Do they have a culture edge that persuades workers?

If you’re a leader who really wants your employees at the office full-time, there may be a new solution: Join a small firm.

According to new data, firms with fewer than 5,000 employees are nearly three times as likely to require full-time attendance from their workers as firms with more than 25,000 employees. In all, 23% of smaller firms require full-time office work, while only 8% of the largest firms do. Experts say the figures suggest smaller firms can create such requirements because their return-to-office efforts—unlike those of larger firms—appear to be succeeding.

In particular, experts say, the figures suggest smaller firms do a better job of establishing a sense of common purpose among their employees. The tighter the group, of course, the more people are incentivized to endure commutes and other costs associated with going into the office. “Culture-building in smaller firms is more crucial to driving colleague engagement than it is in larger firms,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president for global benefits and mobility operations.

The data reflects the latest challenge big firms are facing, at least in terms of creating cultures that draw people to the office. At smaller organizations, people often take on multiple roles, says Anu Gupta, a Korn Ferry senior client partner specializing in corporate and business unit strategy. “Good teamwork and communication are not only essential to the growth of the organization, but also, in many cases, to its survival,” he says. Multiple post-pandemic studies indicate that teams work more cohesively and effectively in the office than they do remotely.

Indeed, small-company culture often embraces an entrepreneurial, “act like an owner” mentality, says Dan Kaplan, Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “That doesn’t exist at a lot of large firms.”

The largest firms might require the least amount of full-time office work, but they are also more likely to have a structured schedule for hybrid employees. Indeed, 75% have established specific expectations around factors like days- and hours-per-week minimums and specific in-office days. By contrast, only 46% of the smallest firms have a structured-hybrid setup.

The data comes from an index produced by work-management-software firm Scoop, which reviewed headquarters-office requirements for 7,500 companies in 50,000 US office locations. The survey found that  the average expected in-office work time for corporate workers is 2.5 days per week. About 18% of organizations—regardless of size—require full-time in-office work.

The most flexible industry was technology, in which 49% of firms grant employees full discretion in deciding whether or not to work at the office. Among insurance companies, which ranked second, the prevalence of flexibility was significantly more limited, at 34%. Experts attribute tech’s relatively flexible approach to the fact that most of its organizations aren’t situated in manufacturing centers. In addition, tech-industry employees are often in high demand, meaning that many firms may have to offer flexible scheduling to attract and retain top talent.

The least flexible industry was restaurants and food services, fully half of which mandate full-time in-office attendance for  corporate employees. Generally, employees working with food can’t effectively perform their job unless they’re on-site at their restaurant, farm, or processing facility. Letting corporate employees in other industries work most of their time remotely might look unfair.

Regardless of a company’s size, experts say, any RTO mandate will go much more smoothly if leaders clearly explain its underlying rationale. Kaplan said he appreciated the frankness of one investment-firm boss, who acknowledged to his employees that commuting wasn’t ideal, but that they had to return to the office because the company owned billions in commercial real-estate assets. A firm that owns office buildings deploying a fully remote workforce would be a terrible look. “There was candor,” Kaplan says.

Many employees might grouse about it, but they’ll return to the office if they feel they’re getting something out of the experience, experts say. In one study, 85% of employees said they’d be motivated to return to the office to rebuild team bonds. Other incentives they cited include in-person training, better feedback, and career-development opportunities.


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