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Are We Approaching Peak Return to Office?


People working in an office
Image: Jacob Lund - Alamy Stock Photo
Over the last several years, workplace thinkers and strategists have traded blows on what working style (in-office, hybrid, or remote work) will be the model for the future post-pandemic. Based on recent research, the future of work for many workplaces might look like the past in many ways, as in-office remains the most predominant working style.
In-office Working Remains on Top
Recently, Jose Maria Barrero, assistant professor of finance at ITAM Business School; Nicholas Bloom, Stanford Economics professor; and Steven J. Davis, professor at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, shared their latest WFH Research survey results, updated on September 9, 2022. In-office working has remained the most popular working model, hybrid work has gained a foothold, and remote work or work from home (WFH) has declined from pandemic heights.
Diving deeper into the WFH Research survey results, approximately 55% of employees are working full-time on-site, roughly 30% are operating in a hybrid fashion, and the rest (around 15%) are fully remote. Additionally, the percentage of paid full days worked from home was roughly at 30%, which was down from a height of around 40%, WFH Research found. Though WFH numbers are down in comparison to the peak of the pandemic, the researchers noted that the percentage of people who worked from home doubled every 15 years pre-pandemic. During the pandemic, we saw 30 years of WFH growth over the course of fewer than three years.
The research also broke down industries with the most and least WFH days. Typically, employees who provided services or sold product worked fewer days from home than their white-collar counterparts. The industries with the highest amount of WFH days included information workers at 2.72 WFH days, finance and insurance employees at 2.18 WFH Days, and workers in professional and business services at 1.98 WFH days. Employees in transportation and warehousing, hospitality & food services, and personal services had the fewest WFH days, clocking in at 0.57, 0.58, and 0.65, respectively.
Whatever Working Model Wins Workplace Culture Remains Key
Since news stories and other research have been reporting that employees are only coming into the office for a single day a week, research showing that 55% of employees surveyed are working full-time on-site might seem incongruous. However, as we’ve known about the return to the office, employees in certain vertical industries (especially frontline workers) might not have the luxury of working remotely. Some employees never returned to the office because they never left it in the first place.
What remains to be seen is if executive leadership will make any further progress in bringing more employees back to the office in the fall and winter timeframe or if this 50-35-15 split between in-office, hybrid, and remote workforces will be the status quo.
Though many employees and workplaces have seemingly moved on from COVID, the next couple of months might bring the infectious disease back to the forefront, mudding the picture of where employees will work this fall and winter (something I discussed in a recent WorkSpace Connect article). When COVID cases start to trickle into the office, it would not be unforeseeable for workplaces to stem any spread of infection by encouraging remote work, then returning to their hybrid work plans when the latest surge is over. Many IT, HR, and facilities management (FM) departments have most likely made workplace changes that allow for a more seamless shift between working modalities.
Aside from potential COVID surges this fall and winter, some large enterprises are still reckoning with employees’ resistance to returning to the office. Most notably, Google has struggled to excite many of its employees on returning to the office. Since Google started bringing employees, many have taken to media outlets to share their stories of being routinely notified of COVID outbreaks in the office. Other companies like Apple have similarly found resistance to their plans.
As I’ve often argued in my WorkSpace Connect articles, workplace culture is everything. If you're a workplace leader and you can’t get your employees to buy into your plans for the future of work — which seems to be the case for Google — then you might want to rethink your approach. Workplace leaders in HR, IT, and FM are often in the middle of C-suite directives and employee demands. It's part of their brief to bridge the gap between executives and employees and share insight on ways to improve the overall employee experience.
We might slowly be approaching what could be considered peak return-to-office, i.e., everyone that can and would return to the office has done so. We might see some periods (like in the fall and winter) where remote work ticks up, but I doubt we will see the widescale office shutdowns that we saw in the cold months of 2020 or 2021. However, as this winter unfolds, workplace leaders need to be at the ready to respond to changing workplace demands and ensure that employees have the best work wherever they choose to work.