Return to Office

Return to Office Roadmap | Navigate the New Normal

By Published On: June 23, 2023

“Despite the public debate over return-to-office mandates at major companies, experts say office occupancy will never return to the levels experienced before 2020. In February, workplace data company Kastle Systems estimated that half of workers in the United States had returned, but that figure has stagnated since.” Washington Post


Return to office policies are starting to create workplace tensions around the nation between employers and employees. Additionally, financial pressures are on the rise due to offices sitting empty. The emergence of technology and virtual tools has accelerated remote access for workplaces around the world. But, that doesn’t pay the rent for those holding leases in expensive city centers like New York and San Francisco. The already volatile nature of supply chain disciplines has also felt the pinch of increasing costs for remote and virtual workplace tensions with an increase in those seeking hybrid and flexible working arrangements from their employers. Because the supply chain talent pool is typically more nuanced than other fields, employees able to work remotely are being more firm in their compensation requirements to include these arrangements.

In this article, we’ll explore the cost/benefit ratio for employers and how they’re trying to get people back into the office – and who’s required to return to the office. We’ll also examine ways in which the supply chain functions and industries have adapted to compensate for shallow talent pools accelerated by the exodus of the boomer generation.

Pandemic Game Changer Impacting Return to Office

When the world shut down, every citizen was impacted. From the boardroom to the mailroom, workers felt the effects of a Pandemic. This not only created a different reality in the workplace, but it shifted priorities for workers at every level. Virtual tools matured that allowed for entire teams to function remotely without gathering in person. The norm changed almost overnight. As the old saying goes, you can’t put this genie back into the bottle. With the availability and efficiency of tools for virtual work, more and more people took advantage of them.

As the Pandemic eased, employers began to reassess how they were going to handle the new normal. High value employees knew their leverage. Workers in niche fields like supply chain, already bereft of enough talent to fill required roles, also began to insist on flexible workplace arrangements in compensation packages. Executives who once were the only people to enjoy coming and going from the office as they pleased began to see this desire permeate the ranks.

Work life balance became more of a priority. Why? Because for the first time in more than a century, every worker in America confronted the mortal dangers of the workplace. Why risk your health and wellness for someone else’s profit margin, especially when the work can be done just as well, if not better in some cases, remotely.

After 2 years of trying to balance return to office or allow permanent remote work, employers are now seeing the costs catch up to them.

Office occupancy has likely plateaued at 50% and could possibly be expected to peak out at 55%. However, the incurred costs of office leases and empty spaces have yet to peak.

Employer views: Cost and Camaraderie

Naturally, employers want their charges back in the office. They’re paying for the space and the inclination to monitor work and productivity levels in person is easier. This mode of thinking seems to be more and more archaic by the month. Everything changed in 2020. Technology rapidly advanced to accommodate an interrupted world. These changes became the norm. Workers began to realize their inherent value and saw no reason for employers to force in person, full time, office presence when the tools were available to provide flexible workplace arrangements.

So long as productivity remains high, what’s the issue?

One of the biggest reasons employers lobby for a return to office is simple: cost.

A recent Washington Post article titled “Workers want to stay remote prompting an office real estate crisis” discusses the pending economic impacts of remote work becoming the norm.

The economic impacts cannot be denied, especially in large city centers reliant upon office space occupancy for rents and human traffic for commerce. Entire office buildings sit empty in cities like New York and San Francisco and this issue exists in degrees in most top 30 cities. This sudden upheaval has rippling effects as retailers surrounding these once vibrant business centers also have begun to shutter their doors.

Banks are taking on more debt and risk as employers work to restructure conditions of their leases and loans. This economic volatility contributes to employers wanting their charges in the office, in addition to the perceived camaraderie inherent with in-person work environments. However, many employees would prefer not to spend time commuting and upset a delicate work life balance because their employer has an expensive lease.

Some employers are more inclined to curate a hybrid and flexible workplace environment. Some employers are less able to accommodate hybrid arrangements due to the nature of the industry in which they work. There’s a case by case issue for this and it’s being played out in real time.

Some supply chain positions don’t have the option of remote or hybrid workplaces. Being onsite is paramount to the success of the objective. Production, manufacturing, operations, and even planning to an extent require a lot of hands-on capacity. White technology has helped to automate and digitize a lot of this work allowing for more people to be remote than in years prior, some just cannot be done virtually.

Employee View: What’s In It For Me?

Why should employees disrupt their already disrupted work/life balance for someone else’s profit margin? While extreme, that seems to be the prevailing sentiment when confronted with “return to office” measures.

Digital project management tools have evolved rapidly as well. Employers can monitor productivity remotely. Tools like Asana, Trello, Harvest TIme Tracking, and Instagannts can provide real time visibility into project statuses and resource allocation across timelines. Of course, these tools are only as good as the usage rates by employees.

An argument can also be made that productivity increases when employees work from home because they’re always “at the office.” they’re also not spending time commuting.

Some view what’s happening now as a new labor movement in a Pandemic impacted world. People’s life perspectives were fundamentally altered and their priorities shifted to more of a personal focus. Employers would do well to recognize this change and work to better understand the needs of their employees while working to accommodate, when possible.

While many employees are biased to virtual or hybrid, there are downsides for employees. Early in career employees actually do benefit from learning alongside more senior team members and leaders. Learning by seeing and doing is particularly important to collaboration and influencing skills as well as customer and account management. Team based problem solving in a live setting is a valuable skill. And we cannot discount the reality that exposure to other team leaders and senior leaders is a catalyst to consideration for advancement. You aren’t likely to advance in many businesses sitting at home and you are unlikely to make the leap from and individual contributor to team leader by being a virtual superstar.

More and more data is being linked between career success and a healthy work life balance. But establishing this balance requires self awareness and action. As more time passes, more and more studies demonstrate the prevalence of remote work among women and the highly educated. If this is your desired demographic, then employers would be wise to include remote and hybrid packages.

Where’s the Return to Office Middle Ground?

There will be employers dead-set on fostering more of an in-person company culture. There are definite pros to having onsite engagement for your staff. Given this desire, what are some of the best ways to go about insisting staff return to the office?

  • Onboard in person: Get folks in the door to learn about company culture and getting to know the team. Then allow for them to choose their remote schedule. Studies have shown that employee attachment to company culture doesn’t increase based on how many days a week they’re in the office.
  • Incentivize with More than Pay: Things like providing showers and locker rooms for your exercise conscious employees or even paying for onsite childcare will greatly reduce stress and cost for your team.
  • If you want people in the office, the office experience has to live up to expectations. Asking for three days in the office is great, but if an employee sits in a cube all day on Zoom, you are crushing engagement. The same issue exists if an employee comes in on a prescribed day and does not see their leader or sit in on a team working session that is clearly more productive than a virtual meeting. Finally, if employees are coming in, team lunches and larger after work gatherings are difference makers.

Meeting your employees where they are only increases dedication to the organization. Understanding their costs, stress points, and how to relieve them can dramatically increase a positive response to requiring a return to office.

Despite this article in the Economist claiming that remote work is less productive, there’s a price to employee happiness. Perhaps that’s the balance to strike.

But understand that it’s highly unlikely that a full time return to the office will take place and that your competition will poach your key employees if you’re too ironclad in your onsite work requirements. So What?

The genie of remote work can’t just be put back in the bottle. If the work force as a whole is as productive and happier with hybrid work arrangements, then that is unlikely to change. Employees are flexing their muscles in this manner as well as others as a means to invest in themselves and their time while also hedging their bets. They believe that they can find an employer that will meet their work/life balance demands and will be more inclined to make a lateral move to accommodate this need.

New York and San Francisco aren’t the only ones who are suffering from the office space exodus. While the cost issue is exaggerated in these areas, the rest of the nation is dealing with a version of the underutilized office challenge. Also, lenders are working with landlords and tenants to adjust terms of leases and loans. It’s much better to adapt and get some money than to be too rigid and get zero.

A final piece of advice for employees and employers: For employees, lean into a fair hybrid work week, likely landing at three fixed days in the office. Be part of the solution and work to ensure that those days are productive by setting meetings with mentors and ensuring team agendas are productive. For employers, do everything except mandate. Instead, take the lead on curating high quality in office days with visible leadership and well planned live collaboration to accelerate business progress and employee engagement


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