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Companies Want Workers to Return to the Office

Three reasons why the management pendulum is swinging against remote work.

Despite the enormous popularity of remote work for many employees, most companies will be returning employees to the office during the coming year. A recent survey from Resume Builder showed that 90 percent of companies with office space will be bringing their employees back into the office by year-end 2024.

Source: Ivan Samkov / Pexels
Many remote workers may not realize they'll soon be called back into the office.
Source: Ivan Samkov / Pexels

To be sure, many of the arrangements will be hybrid, meaning companies will offer some combination of work-from-home and in-office opportunities. Nonetheless, this trend (known as return to office, or RTO, or in business parlance) is still a disappointment for large numbers of employees who enjoy flexibility and feel more autonomous and productive when working from home.

There are three main reasons, according to the survey, plus some thoughts of my own.

It can be hard to manage remotely. The simple fact is, as I've said about 6,000 times, everyday management even in the best of circumstances isn't easy, dealing with such pesky realities as unique personalities and contentious group dynamics. Not surprisingly, effective remote management is harder still. The normal challenges of in-person management are amplified by distance, poor communication, feelings of isolation and disconnection, and others. It may well require extra managerial effort to be sure employee performance expectations and results are (as an old editor of mine used to say) "clear as a mountain crick." Can it succeed? Sure. However, many organizations lack the management talent to pull it off.

Companies feel returning to the office has improved productivity and revenue. In the research noted above, some companies have been bringing employees back to the office since 2021, so they've now had time to assess how remote versus in-office management has been performing. Their conclusions? More than 70 percent of the organizations surveyed feel bringing employees back to the office has improved revenue, and more than 80 percent feel it has improved productivity. Is this perception or reality? It's a little hard to say because of the general manner in which the question is asked: "Do you believe RTO has improved or worsened the following?" Or do the answers mostly reflect the challenges of managing remotely, as described above? Again, it's hard to conclude definitively, but if management does indeed have reliable data indicating that revenue and productivity are stronger with an in-office workforce, well, then returning employees to an office setting becomes an easy decision to make.

It can be a subtle way of engineering a layoff. This third reason is more Machiavellian, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have truth to it. For many remote workers who've made major lifestyle changes and moved themselves and often their family to a distant location, returning to the office just isn't possible, or at least practical. Last fall Matt Higgins wrote a provocative piece for Fast Company, "Op-ed: One possible reason many CEOs want workers back in the office is they want some to quit." Indeed, we live in an age of corporate reorganizations. As Higgins writes, "'Hire slow, fire fast.' It’s a well-worn adage that many first-year MBA students have drilled into their heads." Yep, got it. Been there, done that. In an RTO scenario, Higgins concludes, "It’s not hard to deduce that someone who moved their whole family from New York to Whitefish, Montana, is probably going to find another way to survive." Sad to say, I don't think this is at all a crazy line of thinking. A generation of managers raised on the notion of downsizing their way to profitability may well see the RTO option as a welcome way to reduce staff while avoiding traditional layoffs and the pain and negative publicity that invariably entails.

Remote work isn't for everyone, but for some employees, and some personalities, it's a game-changer. They love the relative autonomy and thrive in it.

Given the issues described above, it's not surprising the pendulum would swing back toward the office a bit. I hope the arc isn't too long.


Resume Builder. (2023). 90% of Companies Will Return to Office By the End of 2024.

Higgins, M. (2023). Op-ed: One possible reason many CEOs want remote workers back in the office is they want some to quit. Fast Company.

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