For a lot of companies, 2023 has been looked at as the year of the office return. Across the spectrum, occupiers large and small began issuing new policies on remote and hybrid work schedules at the beginning of the year. As companies began announcing their new workplace plans, perhaps the most common change to emerge was adding another day in the office. Companies where workers spent two days in the office are often requiring staff to be in the physical workplace three days out of the week. Backlash to the policies at big companies has gotten the most headlines, but there are companies where three days in the office has proven to be a good fit. And more days in the office is leading some occupiers to change up their office footprint.
Company leaders were eyeing early 2023 as the turning point for more hard line in-office attendance a little over a year ago. In a wide-ranging Microsoft survey taken in early 2022, 50 percent of leaders said their company either already required or was planning to require employees to return to the office full-time in the next year. The same survey found that 52 percent of workers surveyed were thinking of switching to a full-time remote or hybrid job sometime in 2022. “A lot of business leaders have told me that they don’t believe in hybrid work, that it has no place in their culture,” said Elise Freedman, a workforce transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry. “But the companies who push for a full return-to-office could see serious ramifications if they don’t offer employees the kind of flexibility and environment they’re asking for…they’ll just leave.”
Fast forward to the beginning of this year, and the list of companies requiring more days in the office began to grow. Disney CEO Bob Iger mandated employees return to the office four days a week, Apple leaders required workers to come in three days a week, and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg encouraged staffers to work in-person more. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon made headlines in January when he said remote work “doesn’t work” for younger employees and those in management roles. Since then, the banking giant has further cracked down on remote work, requiring managers to be back in the office five days a week.
In February of this year, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy wrote in a memo that all corporate employees would need to start going to the office at least three days a week beginning in May. The reason given by Jassy for the increased time in the office was that it would make it easier for workers to collaborate and would serve to strengthen company culture. The move was met with swift opposition from thousands of Amazon employees who voiced their opinions on the decision in a dedicated Slack channel.
Making decisions surrounding office attendance can have a lot of implications for companies, and getting it right requires a lot of thought and introspection. Mark Holmstrom is the Head of Global Consulting at JLL Work Dynamics where he works with clients on their workplace strategies, including guiding them on their hybrid work policies. “Now that work can be done anywhere, people are really struggling to figure out how to get it back to the office,” he said. “Generally we’re finding that corporate edicts with senior executives are not really working, to get super blunt.”
The main sticking point companies are struggling with, Holmstrom argued, is that leaders are focusing on the “what” and “how” of returning to the office but not doing a good job of articulating why people need to come back. If a job can be done from home, why should a worker be required to do it in the office? “To have an edict of ‘this many days’ is really the wrong way to look at the problem,” said Holmstrom. Instead of having a predetermined number of days set in stone for all employees to follow, employers first need to get a true sense of what their company stands for, including its purpose, vision, and strategy, and a deep understanding about the work itself.
For example, a company in the financial sector that employs a lot of investment bankers would have good reason to ask employees to return to the office several days a week. Investment bankers spend a lot of time negotiating with people, building relationships through lunches and dinners, reading the room, and learning the art of the job, which can only be done in person. “If you think of a company like that, those individuals should be together all the time and the infrastructure should optimize them being highly successful,” Holmstrom said.
On the other hand, for employees of the same company that work in a call center, where many tasks are online or digital, in-person work isn’t as important to the kind of work they do. “Finding that balance of different work types is very critical,” he said. “If you think of work in the generic sense where more myopic companies are coming from, you’ve got to break it down and understand that in an organization, a lot is done in different ways and modalities, and you need to optimize the workplace for work itself and not office.”
The most-cited reason for returning to the office has been collaboration with colleagues. That was the main theme Disney’s Bob Iger touched on in a message to employees earlier this year updating the company’s hybrid policy to four days in the office. “In a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together,” Iger said. He certainly had a point. Recent studies have shown that wanting in-person collaboration and socialization are among the top reasons why workers want to come back to the office. Tapping into this, some companies have created in-house apps that tell workers when and where executives and team members will be in the office. They’ve found that teams are more willing to commit to going into the office when they know their colleagues will also be there. “It’s absolutely game-changing,” said Holmstrom. “It gets to the psychology of humans.”
The desire to be around other people and feel the energy of a bustling office has led some companies to reconfigure their space. For instance, by increasing the density of employees to space, occupiers can create an ideal work environment so that when workers do go into the office, they’re not sitting in a room with just a few other people on the whole floor. It’s also something that could tie into sustainability efforts. If a company looks to increase density in their space they can shut down floors and optimize their HVAC systems and lighting to use less energy.
Struggles over hybrid policies aren’t always just between employers and employees. There’s also the internal debates over what makes sense as a policy that can result in a lack of consensus on the topic among company leaders. “Take the 30 top executives of big Fortune 500 companies, they all have a very different perspective of what the office can be,” Holmstrom said. Some may stick to a more old-school, traditional view that everyone shows up every day at the same time, while others may subscribe to the view that some roles don’t require in-office attendance based on the nature of the work required.
We’ll no doubt continue to see more companies ask workers to come into the office more often. Bringing teams back to foster better collaboration and company culture has been something occupiers have been talking about for years, and 2023 has been a turning point for a lot of major occupiers in that regard. Requiring more days in-person can be a gamble for some companies, and it can mean changing up the way office space is used. Some occupiers are densifying their spaces more to enhance work environments, others are adding more collaborative areas and different types of workstations. It may only be a day or two more during the week but it can end up having a pretty big effect on how companies use–or don’t use–their space.