Is a Widespread Return to Working in the Office on the Horizon?

UPDATED: June 4, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 10, 2023
employees working in an office

Just when we thought remote work was here to stay for good, we started seeing reports of high-profile companies calling employees back into the office. While at first, it seemed like just a few sectors, now more companies are publicly explaining their logic behind the necessity for in-person work. 

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said in a March statement that employees who were in person, or who had transitioned to remote from in person, were outperforming employees who joined as a remote worker. Based on the data, he’s encouraging his team to “find more opportunities to work with your colleagues in person.” 

Similarly, in January, Starbucks founder and former CEO Howard Schultz issued a statement entitled “Message to Starbucks support partners: Returning to each other and to the office.” He says, “They are asking us to do the transformative work that I believe can only be done effectively when we are physically together—the kind of thinking, daring collaboration, courageous conversations that cannot be done on Teams calls, or in just prescheduled meetings or just as transactions. Partners, it’s time for us to come back to the office—to do this Mission-critical work face-to-face, and in person.”

In fact, the number of in-person-only workplaces is increasing over time. On March 22, 2023, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in August and September 2022, nearly 3 in 4 businesses had little or no remote workers. By comparison, approximately a year prior, just over 60% of businesses had little to no remote workers. 

Here’s what experts are predicting about dwindling remote work, and how the return to the office is going for business leaders.

Is working in an office an attempt to regain control?

For some leaders, life since 2020 has been one big-out-of-control spiral. A return to in-person work might just be an attempt to get some of it back, according to workplace happiness expert Jenn Lim, CEO and co-founder of Delivering Happiness and bestselling author of Beyond Happiness.

Other CEOs have made their opinions of remote work clear—Reed Hastings, executive chairman of Netflix, said he didn’t “see any positives” about employees working from home. JPMorgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon was of the opinion that “It doesn’t work for young kids or spontaneity or management,” though he continued to say that “There are jobs where it is reasonable”—including pointing to using remote work for the benefit of female employees, for example, as “COVID taught us the burden on women, because they take the primary care, for parent care, etcetera, is enormous.”

Lim also points to Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk: “He believes people are just pretending to work and abruptly ended Twitter’s work-from-anywhere policy via a late-night email and then did an about-face and closed Twitter’s Seattle and Singapore offices opting for a remote workforce.”

“We’ve experienced so much uncertainty and a loss of control in the past three years. People are craving ways to take back control where they can. This, coupled with the flexibility and autonomy gained during the pandemic and after, is why we see such a pushback to return to office (RTO) mandates,” Lim says. But without clear logic and communication, she doesn’t think there will be much buy-in.

She’s most clearly seeing RTO mandates in technology fields, in which several companies are reversing their “work from anywhere” pandemic policies for some or all of their employees. In addition, she says that RTO mandates are often the response to an uncertain economy, and slowing growth. 

Keeping flexibility for working in an office vs. remotely

The burden of proof seems to be on formerly remote companies to convince employees, who largely prefer flexible work options, that there’s a true reason to come back in person. For Mo Katibeh, RingCentral’s president and COO, the conversation started in 2022, when the company began considering a hybrid structure over their formerly fully remote setup, stemming from questions employees were asking.

“The consensus we got from division leaders is that some people missed in-person strategy sessions, new employees wanted greater access to mentorship opportunities and that some strategic business functions would benefit from occasional in-person meetings,” he says. So, they moved first to a hybrid model, with three days in person, but it quickly revealed “administrative burdens.” 

“Life happens. People go on vacation, minor emergencies happen, people get sick, etc. By managing for three days, we were taking time away from managers who had to understand, and explain, any variances,” he says. In an employee survey, he found that half of their full-time employees see flexible work as among the most valuable company benefits, preventing leaders from wanting to mandate a full return. 

Now, their return-to-the-office mandate is a quarterly quota. Each employee has to work in office 30 days per quarter, and business travel counts as an in-person day.

“So far, the policy has been well-received by the team. Our hub locations are full of life again—it’s exciting! It has been easier to manage and implement, and brings back what employees said they missed most—autonomy and flexibility, as well as collaboration and efficiency,” he says. Seeing employees bond with each other gives new meaning to “water cooler talk” he explains, which is actually impactful to the work environment at his company. “Workers feel supported by their colleagues and employers.”

Overcoming dread to find excitement in reuniting

You can almost hear the collective groan through your team’s Zoom call if you even hint at taking away remote work. Jennifer Buonantony, CEO and editor-in-chief of Press Pass LA and founder and CEO of PPLA Social + PR, says she could sense both a mix of “reluctance and excitement,” when she announced to her press agency staff that they’d be coming in a few days per week, after being remote since the pandemic.

“I felt some employees were not looking forward to having to drive to/from work or sit in traffic or come dressed for the day versus working from the comfort of their own home. However, they were excited to get back to seeing each other, problem-solving together and having places to go for meetings and events,” she says.

For her, the in-person mandate came from missing human interaction and the necessity of training new employees in person. “Working alone indefinitely can also be tough,” she says, noting that face-to-face interaction is a must for camaraderie. She adds that it’s helpful to be able to give less experienced staff more exposure to senior staff, in addition to helping everyone socialize easier at work, especially for brainstorming purposes.  

Challenges in returning to in-person work

The first challenge for Buonantony’s team was punctuality. Everyone had to adjust to rearranging family schedules, accounting for commute time and more. “There were requests to leave early or take extended breaks,” she says, though everyone eventually adjusted. 

The next challenge was remembering how to be a co-worker, and do so in a new space. “Before the pandemic we worked in a traditional office. Now we work out of a house, which offers other benefits and distractions. There are no set desks and there is more outdoor space and areas for photoshoots and video content, but we also have bigger communal rooms,” she says. “We also had to learn how to readjust to working with others—some people work better with music, some work better in silence, some want to take lunch alone and others together.”

In her industry, she sees a permanent place for office work, while also allowing clients some benefits of virtual options. “For events and interviews/tapings, in person is really a must! While Zoom and virtual platforms were a huge life savior during the pandemic, nothing beats the energy of face-to-face communication.”

How to keep employees happy when returning to in-office work

If you know your team would benefit from returning to in-person work or adopting a hybrid model, there are some concrete steps you can take to increase buy-in, and make it an exciting time rather than something to dread. Lim suggests:

  • Helping employees understand the why. Data might be necessary here too, from showing how in-person work might increase profits, to including satisfaction surveys from employees who want the option to work in person.
  • Considering your own team, rather than industry-wide trends. “There’s no one-size-fits-all for how we work. What works in some industries, companies and individuals doesn’t always work for others,” she says.
  • Planning in-person time in an intentional and meaningful way. This way, nobody feels their time (or additional commute) is a waste.
  • Trying it and getting feedback. “Once there’s an acceptance that each company and parts of the company within need to listen, test and iterate what works best, then they can get to the more important piece: how to make it work with systems in place to support it,” she says.

Finally, consider out-of-the-box options that might fit your company’s needs the best, like RingCentral did. “We are proud to have been able to think outside of the box and conceptualize a hybrid framework that feels responsive to our team’s feedback,” Katibeh says. “Personally, I think this is how America will go back to work.”

Photo by NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock