The return-to-office is back (again)
The end of August was always quite gloomy when I was a kid.
It seemed like it rained every first day of school as a reminder that the summer was over and that it was time to return to school premises.
I remember my little sister strolling pointlessly around our apartment and bellowing how she didn’t want to go back to school. She tried to argue with our mom that it didn’t make sense to take the metro for half an hour and pay for the school canteen if she could as easily study from the comfort of her room and eat our mom’s tasty meals.
Twenty years later, nothing changed.
I received a call yesterday from my sister. She sounded frustrated and disappointed.
“Your workation on Madeira didn’t go well?” I asked, trying to define what was the matter.
“Oh, it was amazing. I finished my to-do list for this quarter in two weeks! A short morning swim in the ocean and a workplace on a sunlit terrasse are so inspiring. Even when you are a financial controller!”, she laughed.
“So what’s the matter?”
“I don’t want to go back to the office! My company now mandates four in-person days a week. How can I go back from working on the beach with my beloved husband beside me to four days in the gray, grim office?”
My sister is not the only one to whine about the return-to-office (RTO) policies. The media are overwhelmed by stories of how enterprises like Amazon, JPMorgan, Google, and Zoom are dragging their employees back into the office. Is working from home finally over? Was it simply a pandemic-era health measure? Does hybrid work have any future?
Many might have forgotten that we had already had this conversation at the beginning of the last year. COVID lockdowns had been left behind, companies had started to impose the RTO, the media had been booming with counterarguments from work-from-home lovers, and even we (Hubtobee) had published the guide to organizing the post-pandemic return to the office.
To be prompt, no, hybrid working is not going to disappear. Not this year or the next one. On the contrary, it is going to evolve.
As with any other novelty, there are trendsetters and there are those who oppose working from home. But a balance will be found, creating prosperous and more efficient hybrid work models shortly. It might take some time, though.
According to Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, hybrid working is set to undergo a Nike swoosh, with an initial post-pandemic decrease, followed by its current stabilization and a long-term upswing.
There are a couple of reasons why hybrid work will surge even after the recent drop.
Many enterprises have rushed to put in place remote work policies at the start of the pandemic. In most cases, the hybrid work model was introduced chaotically, hoping it would be a short-term health safety obligation. It was not thoroughly thought through and didn’t always respond to individual employees’ needs. Most importantly, it wasn’t supported well by technology.
I recall leaving my office in March 2020. At that point, I was one of the few employees who actually had a laptop and practiced working remotely from time to time (I worked at a very conservative automotive firm). It might sound astonishing, but we didn’t even have MS Teams then! My desk was equipped with a Keyoo phone, and I had to scroll through a long list of names in an Excel spreadsheet before contacting my colleagues in other offices.
Today, having a video call with 10 team members spread across the country or simultaneously editing a sales deck on one of the cloud-sharing platforms is mundane.
Technological advancement is quickening due to the Schumpeterian economics of the “market-size effects.” When markets expand, businesses are incentivized to innovate to cater to larger and more lucrative customer bases. With the surge in remote work since the pandemic, the incentives for creating superior video-conferencing apps, desk-scheduling software, and hybrid work management solutions have significantly increased as well.
I joined Hubtobee in September 2021. Then, it was one of a few start-ups developing work-from-home solutions in France. Just a year later, I gave up on continuing to fill in my competitor research sheet with new rivals as it seemed like ten appeared every month.
The rise in hybrid work has already begun to build the technological foundations for its forthcoming leap.
Secondly, the cost reductions gained from the employees working from home will make it harder for companies to cancel hybrid work.
Hybrid working can reduce employee turnover by 30-50%. That’s a lot of money saved on recruiting and onboarding.
Not having all employees onsite at once pushes businesses to switch to flexible seating and reduce their office sizes. Financial Times found that half of the enterprises plan to cut 10-20% of their properties in the next three years.
A recent study in France has shown that teleworking can allow 20 to 30% of energy savings when the office is completely closed for the day. With energy prices surging in Europe due to the ban on Russian oil and gas, this is not an argument to forget when opting out of hybrid work.
Thirdly, many start-ups born in the last few years are remote-oriented.
Created during the office-free pandemic times, the popularization of coworking spaces, and the boom of B2B tech, they will drive a remote-first culture, taking advantage of its cost-saving benefits.
Moreover, hybrid work is a great driver for CSR-focused enterprises.
Caregivers, minorities, and people with disabilities are often the ones to benefit the most from flexible working, considering that the primary advantage of working from home is no daily commute.
Yet, those who face the biggest commuting challenges are residing in less developed metropolitan areas or residential zones (also referred to as “family” suburbs) and have limited purchasing power to have their own personal means of transportation.
As a result, nearly half of the non-white and female employees would consider quitting their jobs or would actively seek new employment if they were not granted the option to work remotely at least part-time.
There is no need to say that employees dealing with specific health conditions or disabilities may find working from home more advantageous as it allows them to recover faster, avoid aggravations, stay discrete, and reduce health-related stress.
Hybrid work is a great tool for enterprises to have a more inclusive culture.
Last but not least, though there are still many debates about the impact of hybrid work on the environment, I see it as a great tool to decrease the company’s carbon footprint.
Fewer emissions are used during transportation to and from the office, less office space to heat and illuminate, and fewer paper cups and K-cups to recycle. These are only a few reasons to believe hybrid work can help the environment.
Unfortunately, not many companies are considering the impact of RTO on the planet, and even fewer know how to calculate it.
My sister has five separate recycling bins on her balcony and refuses to drink or eat from disposable dishes. “There is no way I am taking a cab four days a week to the office but there is no metro nearby!”. Her company moved to the suburbs in May to save on the real estate. “And who will walk my dog while I am in the traffic jam for two hours? I think it’s time I look for another job.”
Despite all these reasons and the obvious preference for hybrid work among employees, many companies are still pushing for the return to the office.
These businesses struggle to overcome growing individualism and maintain a strong social connection between employees in hybrid realities. Therefore, they are forcing employees to return to the office rather than encouraging them socially to collaborate in person.
But with more experience and modern technology, it won’t take too long for businesses to figure out the right way to do hybrid work. When done, work-from-home will recover and grow once again.