Returning to the Office: Where Is Everyone?

With only a third of workers coming back so far, experts say firms may need to rethink their strategies, including a new emphasis on “hot desks.”

After a year away, the marketing director was looking forward to getting back to her desk to work alongside colleagues. The only problem: her desk had vanished.

Instead, she was told she would not be assigned a permanent desk anymore; rather, she’d be given a different desk each time she came in, something commonly known as “hoteling” or offering a “hot desk.” True, the desk was socially distanced and sanitized, but now she could barely find her colleagues, who were either scattered about or hadn’t bothered to come in.

A half year into an unprecedented effort to convince workers to do what was once normal—come to the office—companies are realizing the response has been less than overwhelming. In the country’s 10 largest metropolitan areas, only about 32% of workers are back, estimates Kastle Systems, which monitors access key swipes in 2,600 buildings nationwide. That’s up from 20% last December, but both the past and current figures include workers who were required to come in or face dismissal, suggesting a very low voluntary rate.

Certainly, many workers are balking to avoid long drives or are still dealing with childcare or other home issues. But experts say many of those who are returning wind up disappointed—with cafeterias closed, meeting space limited, and personal real estate taken away. Many feel all they have gained by coming in is more commuting time. “The thinking is, ‘I had to wait in a long line at the elevator and I don’t have a clear workspace when I get to the office?’” says Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory. “‘I could have been at home.’”

The frustrations of returning to the office are, according to experts, a leadership challenge eerily similar to the start of the pandemic when leaders needed to create remote workforces. “People are in a little bit of shock,” says Dennis Baltzley, Korn Ferry’s global solution leader for leadership development. “They’re confused. The office is not what they remembered. They might feel a little helplessness or hostility.” Indeed, there have been multiple instances of employee protests and even a wave of quitting over returning to the office.

Experts do point out that companies have done key work to get people back. They have rewritten their health and safety rules, communicated who can go back to the office, and what hours should be worked. In many cases, restrictions set up by office landlords are no longer an issue, either, with both mask mandates and limits on elevator crowds slowly being removed in dozens of cities. “From the property management point of view, it’s all clear,” says Anthony LoPinto, Korn Ferry’s global sector leader for real estate.

But in the coming months, experts say the challenge for leaders is to listen carefully to employees’ issues and maintain as much flexibility in hybrid work scheduling as possible. As far hot desks go, some clients have desk space as a carrot of sorts, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner of Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “Essentially, they are telling employees you can work remote, hybrid, or in the office—but only keep your desk if you are in the office four days a week,” he says. Ultimately, he adds, the use of hoteling desks is just one example of how firms must communicate their plans carefully. “We’ve all grown accustomed to ‘owning’ our private office and desk space,” Kaplan says. “But it makes sense to change that mindset as part of a broader shift in office culture.”