Return-to-Office Resistance: Adapting to the New Status Quo

by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE

Few things have changed the modern workplace more than the COVID-19 pandemic. Large-scale remote work, which many corporations tried and discarded as unmanageable not so long ago, suddenly became required in most businesses. Nascent and underutilized technologies experienced rapid development and widespread implementation. While the pandemic paralyzed some industries for a while, the white-collar world not only adapted quickly, but it also thrived. According to most studies, individual productivity increased slightly after employees went home to work. Familiar surroundings, flexible schedules, and a lack of commutes led to happier, more engaged, and less-stressed workers… to the point where most of the rank and file simply didn’t and still don’t want return to the office.

Employers, conversely, want their workers back. They have properties and mortgages to pay, and they need people filling those seats to get a return on their investment. They also claim greater value for face-to-face meetings than remote ones, an increased sense of camaraderie in the office, and easier communication of ideas between employees. Some analysts suggest they also want to regain more direct control over their employees.

Since mid-2021, when many companies began to urge or order their people back to the office, they’ve experienced significant pushback. The recently remote workers are content and productive, having proven to anyone willing to notice that work location doesn’t always count if they do their assigned work. A surprising number have proven willing to quit if they don’t get their way.

How can employers adapt to this new reality? Consider these suggestions.

  1. Go with the flow. I’ve long believed that the workplace would eventually decentralize, though I never suspected a pandemic would cause it. Before, we were like honeybees, working and producing in a central hive. Now we’re like mason bees, just as productive but solitary in our own little holes, still making plenty of honey. We’re in contact with our teams; we just don’t see them every day, and don’t need to. I realize this weakens the traditional manager/employee and team bonds to some extent, at least for those supervisors unwilling to put in extra effort. However, remote work allows the organization in general to (a) save a ton of money by maintaining less real estate; (b) pay less for the requisite utilities, insurance, and associated costs; and (c) tap a much larger pool of workers. In addition, studies show that many workers will consider accepting lower pay if they don’t have to come into the office as often, especially those with long commutes. Again, more easy savings. And remember: it’s cheaper to keep experienced employees than to train up new ones.
  1. Adopt a hybrid environment. Some workers will want to come back to the office. So, keep some of them in house, and let others stay remote where possible. Plenty of businesses were already doing this in a limited way when the pandemic hit, especially for short-term specialists like coders and tech writers. But if you have a bunch of permanent full-time workers already working remotely, and it’s effective, why not give them the option, too? Then you can consolidate and save money.
  1. Sweeten the pot. If you need your employees to return to the office, make it easier for them. Pay for their commutes. Offer childcare services or stipends. Improve their benefits, let their shares vest earlier, or provide better matching for their 401k’s. You’ll discover many ways you can lure workers back to a centralized location if you give it some thought. 

Much to the astonishment of the business world, several 2021 polls indicated that a high percentage of white-collar employees who were then working remotely because of the pandemic (40% to 95%, depending on the source) would quit their jobs if their employers tried to force them back to the office. And millions have, in a trend pundits call “the Great Resignation.” As of March 2022, the monthly Quits Rate in non-farm jobs, as tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has risen to a record high of 3% (also achieved in November and December 2021). In April 2020, it was half that.

If you’re a white-collar employer, and you aren’t getting pushback on this issue yet, you probably soon will. How you handle it will determine the future of your business—and whether it survives.

© 2022 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.