Three years after the start of the pandemic, the call by CEOs to return to the office is faltering for several reasons. There is no grand “fix” for hybrid working. The ideal solution for each organization will depend on the answers to seven factors I review below.
The New York Times reported on October 16, 2023, that occupancy rates now were 50 percent of the February 2020 levels, and the levels are nearly the same in East and West Coast areas and North and South areas. After a spike at the beginning of the pandemic, Americans still spend about a third of their workdays at home. (Please the New York Times graphic below.)
Hybrid working is so popular that, according to the NYT, employees equate a mix of working in the office and working from home to an eight percent pay raise. Employees who work some or all their time at home don’t have to deal with the daily hassle —and costs — of a commute. In fact, the process of getting to work is more despised by employees than the need to work. And, at the end of the day, despite all the noise some business executives made to the contrary, remote work saves firms money. It cuts overhead, boosts productivity. and is profitable. And what is profitable in a capitalist economy sticks.
Why is the return-to-work faltering?
The answer, according to a 2023 Workplace Experience and Trends and Insights Report by AppSpace, is that the return-to-work movement remains a work in progress. Only three percent of office employees operate entirely in-person, and 43 percent are fully remote. Just 50 percent of employees say that their company has been extremely effective at rolling out hybrid and remote work policies, and 93 percent believe their organization could do more to improve the in-office experience.
Below are the top five issues to improve, according to AppSpace’s survey:
- Provide consistent and simultaneous communication to all employees, whether they work from home, the office building, remote or hybrid.
- Offer more flexible or hybrid/remote options.
- Offer more training on workplaces tools.
- Reduce the number of apps/tools necessary to work.
- Introduce more helpful digital signage around the building.
- Support room/desk reservations.
Hybrid Workers Are More Efficient
Long-standing research shows that hybrid or teleworkers are more efficient than work-in-the-office employees, and not just a little. In fact, they are 47 percent more productive. And remote and hybrid workers save employers serious real estate costs – up to 50 percent— when they go hybrid and downsize their empty office space and reconfigure the office for collaboration, project rooms, relationship building, and training.
When I was at Medtronic in Santa Rosa, CA, in 2012, I learned that individual office cubes and offices were in use only about 37 percent of the time, as the occupants were traveling or in meetings. And at the same time, the office environment was crowded, leading to huge distractions for office workers and poor productivity. Medtronic implemented a hybrid work environment in 2012 to cut the cost of wasted office space and reinvest the money in research and development. It required us to redesign our office space with fewer unused offices and cubes and add more collaborative and meeting space. It also required us to lead employees differently and put new office and team norms in place. The transition was worth it. We saved $2 million a year in real estate costs and saw office worker productivity increase by five percent per day. Better yet, the productivity of hybrid workers improved by 22 percent.
Other studies have uncovered similar findings on how open office environments needlessly devour money. Gabe Burke of Accenture wrote an excellent article on LinkedIn on Jan. 31, 2022, which all CEOs, Real Estate, Finance, and HR VPs should read. The article’s title says it all, Corporate real estate has become a black hole that devours money. Time to fix it. His article calls for office real estate portfolios to be restructured because they no longer make sense after three years of Covid-19.
It is important to recognize that in Q2 of 2023, job satisfaction is at an all-time high largely due to hybrid working, as measured by The Conference Board.
Where is the endpoint for in-office versus hybrid and remote work?
If your push to return remote workers to the office is a knee-jerk reaction to get back to a management comfort zone, I suggest you are fighting a losing game. Many of today’s high-tech and office workers do not want that environment. With a three million workforce shortage in the US (including high-tech workers), you need to offer an employer brand that will attract and retain new talent and have them be more productive and innovative than your competition. This should include allowing hybrid work where the job duties allow it, using the technology younger workers expect, and redesigning the office to fit its new role. The end game is to have a highly motivated, productive, and innovative workforce that is dedicated to achieving your organization’s purpose, strategies and goals.
Here are seven steps to successfully return remote workers to the office and set up hybrid working
- Job duties: Coming into the office three days a week simply doesn’t work for everyone and is a blunt instrument to guide hybrid working. Instead, identify who can work remotely three to four days a week based on their job duties. If most of their work is done through the computer and most communications can be handled by text, email, phone, and video conferencing, they can largely work from home. They will be required to come into the office for staff meetings, special project meetings, and one-on-one meetings at least one day a week. They will no longer have dedicated personal office space in the office, but touch-down space — such as you see in airports — to go online when they need to. Workers who are physically meeting customers or working in manufacturing, research labs, roles where they can only access sensitive files in the office, and in warehouses will have to come in the office.
- Don’t force it: Don’t force remote work on those employees who want to return to the office four to five days a week. Leave it a choice. These employees should be allowed to keep their personal office space. On the other hand, my strong advice is that if you have told employees they can work from anywhere, I would honor that promise and allow them to continue to do so even if you phase out remote work.
- New norms for communications and decision making: Each department and team should work with their employees to establish new teamwork and decision-making norms for the hybrid workforce. It is good to begin this work with a template and alter it based on department needs (such as Finance or Research & Development) and by the team. At the team level, these norms need to include agreements for when each employee will be working and not working during the day to allow worker flexibility and immediate availability to the team, and to prevent worker burnout. Managers in this environment need to be excellent at setting goals and expectations, building relationships and providing constructive feedback and recognition. They need to set regular one-on-one meetings, staff meetings (which I recommend be face-to-face), which chat and video conferencing platform to use (I agree with AppSpace: just use one) and which communication signal means “there is an emergency I need to speak to you now.”
- Digital technology: Review your digital technology to support hybrid work and to provide younger workers with the digital experience they want from work. This ought to include chatbots to answer commonly asked questions, file servers, and digital learning platforms.
- New Employee Training: For new and younger workers, develop a calendar for when they will spend most of their time in the office to learn from mentors, managers, and peers. This training should be driven by the needs within each job category. During this time, they will need dedicated personal office space. When they reach defined competence levels, they can switch to a hybrid work model.
- Redesign the office: Following the above plan, determine how much dedicated personal office space you need to retain and convert the rest to more meeting rooms with excellent video conferencing equipment, touch-down spaces, and training rooms. The remaining space can be sold off or sub-leased. You will find yourself saving a small fortune that can be used to fund critical business strategies. I strongly recommend you read Gary Burke’s article above and think of the office as a place for aligning employees to culture, strategies, and goals, gathering for recognitions, meetings, and group learning.
- Measures: Establish measures to see that you build upon your productivity gains during the Covid lockdown and improve employee morale and engagement. In addition to meeting goals and milestones, costs, and productivity, these measures should include ensuring your employees who work remotely are still getting the mentoring and development needed to advance their careers and retain them — equal to in-office high potential employees. Also, track carbon emission savings.
Returning to work is faltering because many companies are making arbitrary rules about returning to the office with little success and are fumbling their return-to-work plans and aggravating employees. It doesn’t have to be this way. Use my seven successful steps to build a better strategy. And think about the end game. What is your employee brand? Are you more efficient, innovative, and do you have a higher percentage of your employees committed to the organization’s success?
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and Managing Partner of InnovationOne, LLC. He works with organizations to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: The Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. He is quoted in business journals such as The Wall Street Journal, Workforce Management, and CEO Magazine. Victor has partnered with The Conference Board on innovation research. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at http://www.VictorHRConsultant.com