Why are Companies Forcing People Back to the Office?


For a while now companies have been advised that flexibility is a key component to a successful workplace strategy, with remote working being a big consideration. But more recently corporate America seems to be on a tipping point, wanting to bring people back to the office. Some argue that we’ve moved the needle too far towards a “work anywhere” culture. Two noteworthy cases are Marissa Mayer’s much criticized ban on working from home at Yahoo! and more recently, Meg Whitman setting a new policy at HP “encouraging” many employees to work from the office, noting:

“During this critical turnaround period, HP needs all hands on deck. We recognize that in the past, we may have asked certain employees to work from home for various reasons. We now need to build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration and the more employees we get into the office the better company we will be.”

In both cases, the main drivers behind the decisions seem to be a need to increase collaboration, innovation, and employee engagement. The timing of Meg Whitman’s move comes as HP continues to struggle with its core business and lack of growth. Part of Whitman’s memo reads “This effort is part of the company’s cultural shift and will help create a more connected workforce and drive greater collaboration and innovation.”

This begs the question; does physical, face-to-face interaction produce a more connected, more innovative workforce? The easy, consultant-friendly answer: “it depends”. Most companies are organized into smaller business units or service lines, with varying work styles and sub-cultures. Some groups work very closely together, others tend to focus on more solo, heads-down tasks, while others are constantly bouncing from one location to the next.  A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works. A goal of any good workplace strategy should be to align the physical elements of the workplace with not only the day-to-day tasks people need to accomplish, but also the long-term goals of the business. This includes strategizing both how and where space is allocated.

virtual collaboration montage

virtual collaboration tools have come a long way

To some, asking people to come back to the office may seem like an act of desperation for these struggling companies. Unfortunately, words like “collaboration” and “innovation” are starting to become watered down corporate buzz words. Maybe this is a PR issue, but when a company says that bringing all their employees back to the office will result in better collaboration and innovation, the whole thing sounds a little vague and fluffy to me, unless supported with sound strategic thinking.

Employee Satisfaction Considerations

Moving the conversation away from Yahoo! and HP, should other companies consider the same move to bring people back to the office? Before making such a drastic move, there are several factors and alternatives to consider because for many people, having the flexibility to work from home (or anywhere) is a huge perk and in some cases makes them more engaged and productive.

For those who work from home, or have some flexibility in their schedules, suddenly telling them they no longer have these options can be very jarring news, as it will likely require them to readjust their work and personal routines. While I don’t recommend an “all or nothing” approach, I do see some benefit to having people connect face-to-face in the office on occasion, but I don’t believe it needs to be on a daily basis. If you are considering changing your workplace policies to any degree, I recommend giving plenty of advance notice so your employees have time to make the proper accommodations. Below are just a few of the adjustments your employees will likely need to consider:

  • Extra costs for gas, tolls, mass transit to travel to the office. Does the company subsidize this? If not, be aware that this is now an extra out-of-pocket expense for your employees and they may likely view this negatively.
  • Extra time to commute to the office, which may affect accommodations for things like child care, school drop-offs, pickups, pet sitting. If you now require employees to come to the office every day, perhaps consider flexible working hours to allow employees to still take care of other commitments in their lives without causing too much personal disruption.

Think about it. You may very likely be asking employees to give up approximately 5-10 hours and $100-$200 dollars of personal time and money each week to come to the office every day. This, in addition to the personal disruptions this can cause may leave your employees feeling a little more resentful and less engaged than you anticipated. While management may see the value to bringing everyone back to the office, it is equally as critical for everyone in the organization to fully understand the strategy and value-add to this approach. Individuals tend to think first about “what’s in it for me?” before thinking “what’s in it for the company?” If they already feel engaged and productive at home, requesting this extra commute time and associated costs will seem like a waste of resources.

According to a recent Gallup study, “working remotely seems to have a slightly positive effect on workers’ employee engagement levels. Gallup found that these workers are slightly more engaged (32%) than employees who work on-site (28%).” The key is for companies to get a true handle on how their people work, what motivates them the most to be actively engaged, and then provide workspaces and set protocols accordingly. Calling all your people back to the office does not mean that everyone will suddenly start collaborating and coming up with innovation new solutions for the company. In reality, it more likely means that some people will thrive and others will revert to their remote working habits, leveraging technology to connect with people, and possibly isolating themselves altogether from face-to-face interactions.

Real Estate Implications

Aside from considering the accommodations your employees will need to make, some other strategic considerations include:

  • Do you actually have space to bring all your employees back to the office? In order to save space, will you downsize current space accommodations (i.e. smaller offices and workstations)? If so, realize that current employees who work in the office fulltime may also feel slighted by this reduction in their space.
  • Have you run the financial analysis to compare the cost of providing office space for people with the cost to set them up to work from home? Potential cost savings realized from a work-at-home strategy can always be funneled into more innovative endeavors, more R&D, etc., which can also help a company spark more innovation.
  • Will you only bring people back to the office for a short period of time? The HP decision seems to indicate that the move will be temporary (“During this critical turnaround period…”), If that is something your company can relate to, you then need to consider a real estate strategy to ramp up and then scale back your space requirements. Does your current real estate portfolio or local market conditions make this approach possible or financially viable?
  • Have your benchmarked your workplace strategy with that of your competitors? If you are in an industry that is competitive to attract and retain talented employees, are competitors allowing for more flexible working solutions? These work style approaches can often be used as a sales tool to promote the brand and culture of your organization. Knowing how your competitors approach their workplace strategy will help you make more informed decisions.

The fact is, providing space for people is costly business, whether it is in the office or elsewhere. The better you can understand your employees true needs and motivations, and align that with the short and long-term goals of your business, the better positioned you will be to actually make people feel more engaged and motivated to add value to the company.


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