Return-to-Office’s New Balancing Act
#evolve Magazine
January 12, 2023

For employers and employees, the COVID era has been marked, to a large degree, by the maddening start-and-stop of plans for returning to the office on a regular basis. What began as a hopeful heyday of return-to-work in 2021 often foundered on new realities and shifting corporate intentions that rose and fell, it seemed, with the pandemic’s graph lines.

All the while, many employees embraced the freedom of remote work arrangements, while employers struggled with the sea change of the Great Resignation, quiet quitting and a new awareness that employee well-being was inextricably bound up in job flexibility.

Indeed, the disruptions of COVID-centered life only accelerated the pre-pandemic trend toward more remote work. Yet, remote flexibility was complicated by everything from family-adjacent job losses to school closures that led to more caregiving responsibilities for many workers, as well as a realization that they could remain productive on their own terms. Despite the emergence of a new, post-pandemic normal in 2022, the flexible work habits companies had nurtured in the thick of COVID are inevitably bumping against updated — some would say old-school — workplace policies. 

Worker-Led Modeling and Incentives 

More and more, companies are stepping up in-office work requirements — from traditional manufacturers to the tech vanguard. General Motors Co. told salaried employees to be in the office three days a week starting at the end of January 2023, but walked back the policy as some employees resisted. More controversially, new Twitter owner Elon Musk decreed that most workers must be in-office at least 40 hours a week, backtracking on the remote-work option that the previous leadership had said would continue.

Clearly, companies see the need for a stricter stance on in-office attendance. A survey of more than 500 managers at firms with in-office requirements showed that 75% planned to factor attendance into performance reviews. One reason for this is that business leaders are worried about productivity. Microsoft Corp. recently surveyed 20,000 people at companies globally, finding that only 12% of managers were fully confident hybrid employees were productive.

At the same time, some younger employees — often with less domestic responsibility than many of their co-workers — appear to be romanticizing the return to the office, sometimes with posts on TikTok, according to a recent New York Times article. It notes how “a Generation Z office worker [is] more enamored of the daily grind than some of her older colleagues, in part because the physical office remains a novelty.” For employees who entered the workforce during the pandemic, after completing high school or college, and had never worked in an office before, that’s understandable.

For knowledge workers facing a return to in-office work, other experts point to a worker-led hybrid work model. According to Deloitte Consulting partner Carissa Kilgour, data collected from employee surveys by Deloitte and others consistently show that most employees have an expectation for flexibility.

“An employer-led mandated hybrid work model with rigid restrictions could harm workers’ sense of autonomy, engagement, and long-term retention,” Kilgour said. “However, organizational challenges can arise when employees are given unlimited flexibility without guidance.”

For example, it can be impossible to predict how much in-person office space is required on a day-to-day basis or logistically complicated to coordinate synchronous working across varied working schedules, she said.

“It is important to strike a balance between empowering employees with the flexibility to work where and when they wish and create a working model that enables organizational success,” Kilgour explained. “Employers might consider options for different hybrid schedules, allowing teams and workers to agree what works best for them and their teams, while providing guidance and insight on the in-person colocation for moments that matter.”

Additionally, Kilgour said that incentivizing employees to return to work is a clear aspect of the well-being equation.

“Now that employees feel they have proven they can effectively work remotely, they are in no rush to return to the office if it isn’t worth it,” she said.

As a result, Kilgour said employers are trying many ways to lure workers back, including monetary incentives — such as increased salary, commuting-cost reimbursements, and childcare benefits — as well as non-monetary incentives. Those can vary hugely, from standard incentives such as free meals or snacks and additional time off to more inventive ideas like “Puppies and Pizza,” where one company offered employees the opportunity to pet puppies and receive free pizza during lunch breaks.

There are also compliance considerations for employers requiring employees to return to the office full-time or a few days per week. According to Elsie Tai, vice president of property and casualty broker NFP’s Occupational Health and Safety group, the most important essential is that compliance policies should state they are changeable depending on current health developments and business needs.

“Other considerations include setting the legal status for hiring, probation and termination due to inability or unwillingness to meet attendance requirements,” said Tai, “as well as fairness in their application and treatment of employees who are immunocompromised or have other health risks that may increase their chances of serious illness to commute and be present at the office.”

“In 2023, we are likely to see an explosion of new and better technologies to support the hybrid model. We also anticipate employers will get better at tracking and measuring the impact of hybrid work.”

Human Energy and Gender Realities   

As always, employee well-being is staked on a successful work-life balance. It underwent radical change, for better and worse, during the pandemic, and continues to shift as corporate policies and employee needs and wants remain in flux. The pressure placed on employees as they navigate the post-COVID work world, its economic uncertainty and changing demands on their time is a new tax on individual and collective energy.

That’s how Eren Rosenfeld, managing director, leadership, at The Energy Project sees it. Her New York- and Netherlands-based organization takes a neuroscience-based approach to help organizational leadership and employees deal with stress, burnout, uncertainty and change.

“Be aware and respect that you have four kinds of energy,” Rosenfeld said in a recent podcast. “You have a physical energy, you have an emotional energy, you have a mental energy, and a spiritual or purpose-based energy. You need to take stock of where you are in each. You need to recognize what they mean to you, how they impact you…and how they impact how you show up and perform.”

Meanwhile, a longstanding question remains. Are organizations effectively recognizing that caregiving duties during the pandemic era have been disproportionately borne by women, and how are return-to-work policies reflecting that?

“While flexible working programs are often intended to attract and retain female caregivers, employers have largely been quiet when it comes to the intersection of caregiving and flexible work,” said Lauren Mason, senior principal, career, at Mercer. “Female caregivers reported that behind remote work, they value flexibility to make it easy to take time away from work for everyday life events like doctor’s appointments and school schedules — as well as the ability to flex hours during the day on a consistent basis, which can allow greater flexibility for school pick-up and other activities.”

That said, Mason noted the significant risks to employers’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs if flexibility isn’t thoughtfully implemented, embedded into the culture and monitored. Mercer employee research showed that women working in jobs that could be performed remotely were opting into full-time remote work at greater rates than men (19% vs. 13%). But if performance and promotion programs implicitly favor “face time” — as has often been the case — women may be passed over for advancement opportunities, further exacerbating the gender equity issues that are already at play.

“We have long seen this same effect of part-time work,” Mason said, “but the risks of flexibility are much higher given larger segments of the workforce participating. Employers must give due diligence to the cultural adoption of flexibility to ensure it remains an advantage, and not a hindrance, to women’s advancement in the workplace — and to advancement in general.”

Working Out Hybrid Kinks

What emerges from these data points and sociological observations is a straightforward, though not necessarily simple, conclusion: the return-to-work landscape calls for strategically balancing the changes wrought by the pandemic as they relate to both employees and employers. Neither side can have it all, but compromise is baked into the vision of a successful new normal. What will returning to the office look like in 2023 for organizations that have embraced hybrid or flexible arrangements?

According to Mason, an impressive 70% of employers have implemented new flexible working policies, with a heavy focus on hybrid work.

“According to our latest data from U.S. employers, on average, 32% of the workforce is working full-time on-site, 44% in hybrid models and 24% on a full-time remote schedule,” she said. “When it comes to hybrid work, the most prevalent model is three days or more per week on-site.”

The focus in 2023 will be about settling into these new models, she added. “That means working out the kinks in hybrid work — such as the logistical challenges of getting people onsite together on a consistent basis and improved workplace technology. In 2023, we are likely to see an explosion of new and better technologies to support the hybrid model. We also anticipate employers will get better at tracking and measuring the impact of hybrid work.”

None of this exists in a vacuum, of course. Despite rampant inflation and the efforts of the U.S. Federal Reserve to slow down the economy, possibly to the point of a recession in 2023, there remains a tight labor market.

“The labor market is likely to continue to put pressure on employers to enhance the level of flexibility offered, with nearly two-thirds of employees we surveyed looking for more flexibility than they are currently offered,” Mason said. “On average, employees want to work one to two days on-site, compared to the three-plus days employers are requiring.

“Beyond hybrid work, we also anticipate an increase in flexibility offered to employees who can’t work remotely. Workers want increased time-based flexibility that allows them to better balance the demands of work and home life. Leading employers will drive greater flexibility through innovation around shifts and scheduling, which will put them at a talent advantage — particularly since this segment of the workforce is driving the labor shortage.”

Editor’s Note: Additional Content

For more information and resources related to this article see the pages below, which offer quick access to all WorldatWork content on these topics:

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