Remote Workforces 3 min

Should Workers Return to the Office? Can You Get Them There?

Employers continue to struggle with bringing teams back in person. Being flexible can help.

by Stacy Rapacon on September 9, 2022

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  • Big names including Malcolm Gladwell, Jamie Dimon, and Elon Musk are calling in-person work a must.

  • But a vast majority of workers disagree and continue to resist returning to office.

  • Offering employees a choice and being flexible about people’s work situations can help companies retain top talent.

Author Malcolm Gladwell has entered the return-to-office chat. On a Diary of a CEO podcast in August 2022, he asserted that working in-person is a career must, saying, “I know it’s a hassle to come into the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live? Don’t you want to feel part of something?”

The “Outliers” author isn’t alone in his opinion. Many employers, lawmakers, and other key decision-makers argue that a centralized workplace is the place to be, with some leaders — including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Tesla CEO Elon Musk — mandating it for their employees.

The Return Resistance

But many workers continue to resist going back to the office. And C-suite agendas continue to be dominated by conversations about employee engagement and interaction in a hybrid era and how to navigate office leases that no longer reflect company needs. Among knowledge workers, 80% want flexibility in where they work, and 94% want more say in when they work, according to a recent Future Forum Pulse survey. “This is one of the greatest challenges of 2022 and will be into 2023,” future-of-work expert Kim Seeling Smith, founder and CEO of human resources training and consulting firm Ignite Global, tells us.

Nearly every attempt at a return-to-office mandate that we’ve heard about has been met with fierce resistance by pockets of employees, forcing companies to back down and reconsider plans. For example, only around half of Goldman Sachs employees showed up to work at the company’s Manhattan headquarters when the office reopened in March, despite CEO David Solomon’s own assertion that remote work is “an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible.”

Companies that are experimenting with flexible arrangements are constantly tinkering with office layout, technology, and meeting norms to support hybrid workers. (See our tips for running hybrid meetings with impact.)

Flexibility Is Key

The angst isn’t limited to companies with physical offices. Remote-work companies, too, must react to the changing work landscape. Once upon a time, the option to work remotely was uncommon enough that remote companies could offer it as a unique perk — and save on salaries as well. “Before [the pandemic], remote compensation grids were considerably lower than in-person compensation grids for a variety of reasons,” says Ryan Sutton, district president for staffing firm Robert Half. “How much money are [employees] willing to trade for that level of work-life balance and flexibility?”

Now, with so many businesses offering remote work, companies that leaned on the once-unique benefit to beef up their compensation packages must pay more to compete for top talent. “They really need to recalibrate their salary grids based upon current market conditions, remote aside,” he says.

As for employers determined to lead workers back to the office, Seeling Smith suggests staying flexible. “Requiring people to come into the office for a specific number of days will almost certainly backfire. Individuals will fight against it. But given the choice, many more people will want to come back,” she says, noting that the companies she sees succeeding with their return-to-office strategies are consulting with key stakeholders and adjusting as necessary. “This gives people ownership and buy-in, and it trusts them to solve commercial challenges. It also decreases the angst and friction between managers and their teams.”

For a model in flexible-work evolution, look to fintech company Marqeta, whom we’ve spotlighted for its new “flexible-first” policies. Also check out our list of benefits that can entice workers back to the office.


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