In just a couple of months, it will officially be four years since the Covid-19 pandemic. In the business world, that’s four years since work as we knew it changed forever with the boom in remote work and better work-life balance.
Fast forward to today, some companies have attempted to set their work policies by either choosing to be in office five days a week, completely remote, or a mix of the two with hybrid models.
With all that time since the pandemic, it should be nailed down by now, right? Wrong. A lot of employers that want their workers back in the office are struggling to convince their employees why it matters that they’re there. And employees are fiercely trying to retain the right working situation that balances work and their personal lives more healthily, even almost four years later.
Nonetheless, 2023 was the year we returned to in-person work on the largest scale since the pandemic. The year consisted of tug-of-war mandates, CEOs getting tough and hybrid work becoming widely accepted.
So how will RTO shake out in the new year? According to one report, 90% of companies are planning to implement RTO policies by the end of 2024. And new research from KPMG that revealed 63% of CEOs predict a full return to in-office work by the end of 2026.
We spoke to several experts to get to the bottom of it.
A call for transparency from companies about why they want to RTO
Employees are still questioning why they need to come into the office. What is your workplace doing on the required in-office days that have the biggest impact on productivity and beyond? Are there big strategy meetings or team-building exercises?
People reached out to Paul Wolfe, a human-first leadership advocate, former HR exec, and author of Human Beings First, with their answers for those questions, and he says the large majority said that they’re operating the same as they were pre-pandemic.
“Then it begs the question: what’s the point of all of this return to office if there isn’t intentionality?,” said Wolfe.
Heading into 2024, experts say there will be a continued call around transparency from companies about why they need employees back in the office. And employees aren’t going to be OK with cookie cutter answers anymore. They really want to understand how being in the office impacts the work they do. And if it doesn’t, will employers just be honest in telling their employees they need to finish their lease and don’t want to lose money if no one is there?
“I wish companies would be honest and drop the whole culture excuse,” said Eric Mochnacz, director of operations at change management company Red Clover. “I wish they would say: ‘Listen, we made a long-term investment in this office space and we want to continue to add value to it and that’s why we’re actually asking people to come to the office.’ It’s a very practical explanation.”
The need for better productivity measurements
Employers in 2024 might turn to data more frequently to more clearly connect the dots around where employees are the most productive and prove why their model works best. Mochnacz says that can include looking at employee growth as one example.
“One of the clients we work with started out with 16 employees and they’ve done so well that now they’re at 60,” said Mochnacz about a fully-remote company. “That’s a true indicator that they were productive, just from a profitability and company growth standpoint.”
And, employees want to be included in more conversations: “It’s decisions being made at higher levels of the organization, which is not unusual, but there are lifestyle differences, pay differences, and different needs.”
A recent 6,700-person survey from global worktech company Eptura found that one of the biggest things causing friction is the lack of feedback around these sorts of policies. According to the survey, only 24% of companies are collecting feedback. Decisions are being made, and they aren’t even hearing from everyone about what they want through things like surveys, one-on-ones and focus groups.
“Companies have to make decisions based on those data points,” said Carol Howard, chief people officer at Eptura. “But I think when we leave out certain data points, our decision that we’re making may not be as well informed. Employees really want to understand why they are returning to the office. How does it support the goal and objectives of the company? How is this going to move the needle?”
Will in-office attendance be used as a part of performance reviews?
Google announced in 2023 that office attendance would become part of performance reviews. Could more companies follow suit next year if they’re tired of the RTO tug-of-war? And is that the right way to go about it?
“Performance reviews should be about skills and getting things done,” said Wolfe. “A company could argue that the job requirements are being in the office. But are you really going to push it if you’ve got a really strong performer in all other areas? My guess is probably not, and that gets into testing people differently.”
But tactics like this one are leading to employees throwing in the towel and being OK with accepting a hybrid schedule or RTO mandate.
“Preferences from candidates on our platform have shown a 4% swing of people who said ‘I’m remote only’ to ‘hybrid would be acceptable,’” said Sam Friedman, svp of people strategy at hiring marketplace Hired. “It doesn’t sound huge, but it is. It’s a pretty good indication of individuals shifting their expectations.”
A new talent market could emerge
Friedman says that with bigger companies going that route, a new untapped talent market will emerge in 2024. These workers might not be actively job searching, but they might pick up a call if they hear about a remote opportunity. And that’s something mid- to small-size businesses will lean into in the new year.
“They get that this is an opportunity to poach talent from the larger organizations because the smaller organizations can offer something that maybe the bigger ones can’t at this point,” said Friedman.
Roxana Dobrescu, chief people officer at ecommerce company Commercetools, added that “you can spot trends already and the world is splitting into two” when it comes to the RTO debate. There are the companies that have their in-office days, and others navigating remote work.
What makes people truly happy in their jobs?
For some workplaces, retention is a big workplace concern heading into the new year, and how flexible work impacts that is not to be overlooked. Wolfe cites that compensation and career development used to always be the top two reasons people left their jobs, but flexibility has reached that section.
“The companies that force people back into the office have seen a bit of a spike in attrition,” said Wolfe. “They’re also seeing it a little harder to recruit because candidates are looking for flexibility in how their work gets done.”
Jim Alkove, co-founder and CEO at Oleria, stressed that 2024 is the time to pivot away from having a focused conversation about RTO, and focus on employee satisfaction and understanding how people feel about their jobs.
“I do think there’s a very focused conversation about return to office when we should be having a broader conversation about what’s going to make employees happy and successful at their jobs,” said Alkove. “That’s making sure all of us, including larger organizations, are focused on those topics.”