Blog: Why are we really going back to the office? - Part 2

Talent Management

Why are we really going back to the office? - Part 2

There are plenty of reasons for going back to the office, and we’ve covered four strategic ones in Part 1 of this two-part series. Now, we take a bigger-picture view and examine how certain broader, critical principles align with the business case for the return.
Why are we really going back to the office? - Part 2

In Part 1, we debated the case for pulling people back into the office. The 4C’s: Culture, Collaboration, Creativity and Connection make for a compelling case for why working from an office with colleagues might be a good idea. However, in that post, I also promised to balance the debate and return with my pitch for a choice-based workplace; a workplace that treats its employees as responsible adults, trusting them to choose a style that fits their life while ensuring work gets done. While the case for returning to the office fit neatly into a catchy phrase (4Cs), my four reasons to embrace a choice-based workplace is slightly messier. 

Today, we’ll explore Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), Sustainability, Work-Life integration, employee wellbeing and, ironically, culture as the four main themes why organisations should reconsider mandating a fixed number of days in the office. For this discussion, I will keep aside the benefits of reduced turnover and increased attractiveness as an employer of choice. After all, we already know that given a choice, anyone would prefer to be treated as an adult. If you still don’t believe me, in a 2022 survey on remote work, Gallup researchers found that employees who don’t work in their preferred location have significantly lower employee engagement, alongside higher burnout and desire to quit. 

1. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

One of the biggest trends from 2020 and the years that followed is that the hiring pool vastly expanded to embrace talent located outside of core office locations, including those who required flexible hours, had caregiving responsibilities, and more. However, it wasn’t just that the available talent pool had expanded; it expanded to include those who had been previously unfavourably positioned despite being incredibly talented. In the 2022 Diversity report, Meta reported that US candidates who accepted remote job offers were substantially more likely to be Black, Hispanic, Native American, Alaskan Native, Pacific Islander, veterans and/or people with disabilities and globally, candidates who accepted remote job offers were more likely to be women.

Moreover, the option to work from home also enabled those already in the workforce feel more included. I have had innumerable conversations where I’ve learnt how interacting via virtual meetings with reduced non-verbal cues has helped my neurodivergent colleague feel like she was on an equal playing field while previously, she’d miss out on non-verbal cues her neurotypical team members had access to. Euronews reported 75% of neurodivergent workers hide their condition due to perceived stigmas, but that working from home allows those workers the ability to be supported. It also reports that 34% of neurodiverse workers stated that there are less distractions when working from home.

An equal number of anecdotes of reduced microaggressions, casual racism and sexual harassment have also made their way to me. One study found that only 3% of Black knowledge workers wanted to return to full-time on-site work, as opposed to 21% of white peers. Another found that Black, Asian-American, and Latinx knowledge workers all preferred hybrid or fully remote work at higher rates than whites do. 81% of women of colour experienced at least some racism and 90% experience sexism in the workplace, while more than two-thirds surveyed reported being mistaken for admins or custodial staff. 79% of women of colour also reported having to alter their appearance or demeanour to fit in. Washington Post reported that when groups of five make democratic decisions, if only one member is a woman, she speaks 40% less than each of the men, and that in too many workplaces women face the harsh reality that it is better to stay silent and be thought polite than to jeopardise their careers.

Whichever way you look at it, there is no doubt that a choice-based workplace provides a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace that no other policy would match.

2. Sustainability and small city revivals

Climate change is one of the world’s most pressing problems and one of the top issues keeping Gen Z and millennials up at night. ESG is a top priority for many organisations and offering a choice-based workplace helps employers to work towards minimising climate impact. A report by Remote noted that in 2020, as most businesses started to operate remotely, carbon dioxide emissions from transportation were reduced by 15% and that remote work makes it easier for individuals to reduce their emissions. It stated that remote workers also tend to be more energy efficient. When Forbes researched the benefits of working from home, they found that by doing so four days a week, it reduces nitrogen dioxide from traffic emissions by 10%. Zoom calls emit just 0.6% of the carbon emissions generated on a typical commute. In addition, the WHO reports that people with disabilities find inaccessible and unaffordable transportation 15 times more difficult than for those without disabilities. 

The past few years also saw many employees migrate their lives to locations outside of the daily commute radius of their past workplaces. While return to office supporters would quote revival of small businesses that sprung up in and around office spaces, they fail to acknowledge that the de-concentration of cities allowed workers a better quality of life including lower rent and associated cost of living expenses while providing outskirts and smaller towns new customers. Those who need to purchase, will purchase. Some may even go as far as to say that the ‘great migration’ has helped revive dying towns and villages

If organisations truly cared about sustainability and community, there’s no better place to start than scrapping the return to office mandate. 

3. Work-life integration

While DEI & sustainability are compelling reasons, the biggest reason why return to office (RTO) faces widespread opposition is because of the impact on work-life integration and well-being. Remote work allowed us flexibility to choose when and where to work from as long as work got done. We could now play golf at 3pm, grocery shop at 11am, drop/pick up kids from school and log back into work at hours that suited our lifestyle. This not only helped improve personal wellbeing, but also overall productivity at work, leading to lower burnout and work fatigue over time. A mental health website called Tracking Happiness found in a 2022 survey of over 12,000 workers that fully remote employees report a happiness level about 20% greater than office-centric ones. According to a Gallup survey in late 2021, over 70% of respondents said that, compared to in-office work, hybrid work improves work-life balance and 58% report less burnout. 

Working from home also gives us many hours of the day back. For many, living in the city centre or close to office isn’t a financially viable option and consequently, commutes of 60 minutes or longer is the norm. I, personally, lose 120 minutes in daily commute every time I choose to work from an office. As long as the choice is mine, the 120 minutes does not feel like a drain on energy and time. On days with early am or late evening meetings, when I can’t afford to shave 120 minutes off my day, I work from home. And I am not alone in facing this predicament. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that the average U.S. worker saves 72 minutes a day by working 192 from home, 40% of which goes into working more.

Last but not the least, let’s talk about the financial impact of returning to the office. Transportation costs are increasing every year and rarely does the pay hike match the increased cost of living. Recent data from FlexJobs states that the average person can save up to $12k per year by working remotely full-time. Another survey by FlexJobs found that 77% of respondents reported lower stress levels when working remotely, which can lead to lower healthcare costs for the company. The report says that the “average commuter spends between $3k to $15k on transportation costs a year” and the “average commuter travels 39 miles per day and calculated that if the average price of gas is $4.50 a gallon, a commuter can spend up to $1,188 a year just on gas.” 

If all other reasons were to fall apart, a choice-based workplace that offers better work-life balance and eases financial constraint which in turn impacts employee well-being, productivity and reduces turnover. 

4. Culture

I will not repeat what I said in the last post. While organisations are stressing that culture is one of the key ingredients why employees must work together from a shared space, forcing this also sends a strong message on culture i.e. how much trust, autonomy and flexibility (all key ingredients) does the organisation provide.  

The bottom line is that the relationship between humans and work has changed. Employees are no longer looking to fit their life around work but vice versa.

Forcing a guideline of where people need to work from in an attempt to gain control of this changing relationship that will only prove harmful in the long run.

Yes, working from a space other than a designated office five days a week may not be the right thing to do – but it is not because an office space is essential, it is because we have failed to forge a better way. The sooner we admit that, the better it is for all everyone involved. We do not have a solution for how to foster connection, collaboration and creativity in a virtual world or in one where in person meetings are infrequent. Hence, the instinct is to return to how things were in hope that all of this will return naturally. After all, if it worked prior to 2019, why wouldn’t it work now. Yet, forcing the world back in time is a recipe for disaster. Instead of mandating employees back into the office, maybe a better path is to invest resources in finding a solution to the 4C’s that accommodates the changing world. 

At least then we can finally embrace the reality of the changing relationship and forge a mutually beneficial path ahead. 

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Topics: Talent Management, Culture, #HybridWorkplace

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