One of the great debates of 2022 now appears to be “back to the office.”
More specifically, “how to get people back to the office” and “whether we need to.”
It seems businesses had assumed workers would flock back to their old routines as soon as they were able to following the relaxing of restrictions following the two-year Covid-19 pandemic.
However, that’s not been the case, with many workers enjoying the flexibility home-working provides.
Many home-workers say they’re more productive working at home, and not having to commute into the office saves them money and gives them more work time.
On the flip side, other workers – particularly those who live alone – have been desperate to get out of their homes and start having face-to-face conversations with their colleagues.
The result is that many companies have made changes to the way they operate.
Some have allowed staff to continue working at home, others have adopted a hybrid system, and some are forcing people to return.
What are the big companies doing?
Probably the most high-profile example is that of Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Musk has categorically stated his staff must come into the office for at least 40 hours a week, with only “exceptional” performers allowed the option of working at home.
Staff who don’t conform could well be sacked.
Rich Handler, CEO of banking giant Jeffries, also told staff: “If you want a job, stay remote all the time and be efficient in a very limited way.
“If you want a career, engage with the rest of us in the office and use WFH only when smart.”
David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, is also keen to get his 60,000 employees back to their desks.
Speaking in a Bloomberg Television interview, he said: “I certainly would expect a lot of Goldman Sachs employees back in full by the end of the year.”
Jeff Bezos initially ordered Amazon executives to return to the office by the Fall.
However, he’s since changed his tune, and the company has now opted for a hybrid scheme that allows its employees to work from home two days per week.
CEO Andy Jassy said: “At a company of our size, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how every team works best.”
Microsoft has told employees that they can work from home part-time on a permanent basis without being given formal approval from their managers.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a LinkedIn post: “Hybrid work represents the biggest shift to how we work in our generation—and it’ll require a new operating model, spanning people, places, and processes.”
Starbucks is another to make a u-turn.
It had planned to end its work-from-home policy and get staff back into the offices by January 2021.
However, former CEO Kevin Johnson said more than 4,000 office employees would be working from home until the end of 2021, so the company’s Seattle base could be changed to manage flexible working.
Now, the interim boss Howard Schultz is struggling with getting staff to come back to the office.
He said: “I have been unsuccessful, despite everything I’ve tried to do, to get our people back to work. I’ve pleaded with them. I said I’ll get on my knees. I’ll do push-ups. Whatever you want. Come back.”
Social media giant Twitter recently told staff they can work from home “forever” if they want.
However, what will happen if Elon Musk’s $44 billion bid for the company goes through is anyone’s guess.
Why don’t workers want to go back full-time?
Employers have been left with a new problem following the relaxation of pandemic rules.
They’ve found themselves going from one crisis into another as their staff face huge pressure over the cost of living.
In the US and the UK, families are struggling, and many feel the fuel prices would significantly affect them if they had to commute into the office daily.
Others feel they’re more productive at home.
A survey from Envoy also revealed staff are burnt out and still fear catching Covid from their colleagues.
What do the bosses say?
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO: “People are more productive working at home than people would have expected. Some people thought that everything was just going to fall apart, and it hasn’t. And a lot of people are actually saying that they’re more productive now.”
Suresh Kumar, CTO at Walmart: “As we’ve moved to virtual work, we haven’t just coped, we’ve actually thrived. We are more focused on the things that have the greatest impact for our customers, associates and the business. We are making quicker decisions and acting. Meetings are now more inclusive of people regardless of location, level or other differences. We have great momentum and need to figure out how to carry it forward.”
George Penn, VP at Gartner: “Success in a hybrid work environment requires employers to move beyond viewing remote or hybrid environments as a temporary or short-term strategy and to treat it as an opportunity.
Mark Lobosco, VP of Talent Solutions at LinkedIn: “Now that companies have built the framework – and experienced the cost and time savings associated with it – there’s no real reason to turn back.”
Why experts say Elon Musk is wrong about workers returning
Following Musk’s comments on returning to the office, Insider contacted three economists to see if they supported his claims.
They all said remote work did not damage worker productivity.
Natacha Postel-Vinay, an economic and financial historian at the London School of Economics, said: “Most of the evidence shows that productivity has increased while people stayed at home.”
“People spent less time commuting so could use some of that time to work, and they also got to spend more time with their family and sleeping, which meant they were happier and ended up more productive.”
Insider said data shared with Bloomberg in February 2021 by VPN provider NordVPN Teams suggested that in many countries working from home meant people worked longer hours.
Albrecht Ritschl, a professor of economic history, said cutting out commuting was a bonus to worker productivity.
He also said working from home led to fewer hours spent in “pointless meetings.”
“Time spent at the office is not the same thing as working hard,” Ritschl said.
Almarina Gramozi, a lecturer in economics at King’s College London, said the largest surveys of workers in the US and the UK found workers were at least as productive at home as in the office.
However, she did say a similar study in Japan found workers did report lower productivity working from home.
All three experts said productivity occasionally dipped in some cases, but not because people were slacking.
People with children at home during the pandemic often had to split their attention between work and childcare, leading to a decrease in productivity this is when caregivers come into the picture to avoid such things, Postel-Vinay and Ritschl said.
Gramozi also added productivity isn’t just down to individual employees.
She said: “Productivity levels depend substantially on the support that employers offer, technology adoption, and on the type of work that would allow it to be easily conducted remotely.”
Musk did not reply when contacted by Insider.