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It's 2023, Not 2019. What Is the Case for Going Back?

Reading this week's news about Disney employees pushing back against a mandate to return to the office, I found myself wondering: It's been nearly three years since we embarked on the new normal, three years of workers discovering what they can fill their time with when they're not commuting, three years of workers rethinking how to communicate and collaborate with colleagues remotely and not missing a beat on productivity. Why are companies still so intent on trying to return to the 2019 status quo? 

Productivity rates dipped last fall right as more employers pushed for back-to-office policies, more workers reported burnout, and more people moved jobs. The cloud-based learning management vendor Kallidus said last year that new hires have a 25% productivity rate in their first month on the job, ramping up over the next two months, but it takes around 12 months to reach peak performance potential. This raises the question: how much of the national productivity hit is the result of people moving to employers they perceive as more accommodating of their workplace preferences? 

If your job includes organizational strategy, there are clear organizational benefits to employees working in the office. We've recounted several of them -- it's easier to absorb performance-improving insights via ambient knowledge transfer, it's easier to bring new hires and early-stage career hires up to speed in person, and it's easier to establish and reinforce company culture in person.   

The issue is that organizational benefits are not the same as individual benefits. From what we've seen -- demand for remote jobs is still high, even as employers try to push people back into the office -- much of the American workforce has decided organizational benefits don't outweigh the individual benefits they reap with partial or fully-remote work. 

About eight months ago, I rounded up research on widespread workforce resistance to return-to-office mandates, and the explanation for why people preferred hybrid work seemed pretty clear: "So long as workers are convinced that returning to the office means giving up workplace performance and increased well-being for a less productive, less flexible job situation, they are going to look at this change as a loss." 

One of the challenges for workplace strategy teams in 2023 will be to make the case to the workforce that coming back to the office does not represent a loss for employees. Identifying those gains and ensuring they're larger than what's being lost could be a challenge that stretches into 2024.