Getting Back to Work: Returning to the Office in 2023

Three years after the initial office exodus, the debate between employees and employers regarding a return to the office continues. Recently, however, we’ve seen more leaders across various sectors initiate the call to return to the office in what appears to be a shifting of the tides.

Whether fully remote, hybrid, or in-office, the end goal of a company is the same: putting forward the best work to advance its employees and organization. But with increased economic concerns entering the new year, the stakes undoubtedly feel higher—and executives can feel the heat.

An Ongoing Game of Tug of War: Bridging the Disconnect  

Since sending employees home, companies have engaged in an ongoing game of tug of war trying to get them back. Throughout the previous two years, trends such as the great resignation have reshaped traditional workplace norms, providing employees with greater power regarding flexibility and where they’re allowed to work. Yet, amidst recession worries, the tides are beginning to change as more and more leaders are turning their backs on a fully-remote work model—and can we blame them?

If the corporate world teaches us anything, it’s that work is social. When teams are together and working on solving issues at hand collaboratively, there is a sense of connection and togetherness that is poorly replicated over a screen. When this connection is lost, it opens the door for further issues regarding productivity, employee retention, and a company’s overall culture.

In business, “nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that come from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors,” says Disney CEO Bob Iger. And others agree. Alongside Disney, organizations such as Snap, Vanguard, Citigroup, Twitter, Starbucks, Apple, and GM—to name a few—have put forth efforts to get corporate employees back into their offices.

Until recently, employees have successfully used shifting trends in the market to demand increased flexibility regarding remote positions. According to surveys, however, employees seem to favor flexibility in when they work rather than where. And with offices across the country’s top metropolitan areas remaining less than half full compared to pre-pandemic numbers, leaders can use this to their advantage.

The Case for Returning to the Office 

Ask a hundred people what the future of the office should be, and you’ll likely get a hundred different answers. Since 2020, much of the debate regarding remote work has (understandably) been on whether we are more productive in the office or at home. However, we believe the more important question is: can organizations keep their staff and clients engaged long-term without any in-person interactions? In short, they can’t.

According to a survey conducted by Gallup, quiet quitters—employees who mentally disconnect from their work and do just enough to avoid termination—make up more than half of the U.S. workforce, if not more. And in a job market obsessed with remote work, it isn’t hard to understand why. When employees are spread apart, it’s challenging to create interpersonal connections among colleagues that drive progress and innovation. Instead of dreading the return to the office, it’s essential to view the move for what it is: a time to reconnect and collaborate ahead of the unknown.

In truth, flexibility must be a two-way street entering this new year. Successful organizations will be those who work with their teams to build a middle ground that provides the flexibility that employees seek, but also emphasizes the importance of in-person collaboration. For employees, this means giving as much as they receive.

With the growing divergence within the workplace debate, it’s in our best interest to create positive in-office trends and commit ourselves to the task if the end goal is to increase productivity and advance within a company.

Filling in Empty Desks 

As the great resignation has shown, disconnected employees have no issue cutting ties and switching employers in mass. And although more and more companies are reverting to in-person workspaces, many organizations are still operating on a remote-based model. So, if bringing employees into the office is the goal, what can leaders do to ensure their teams remain intact? It begins by having clear intentions.

Before filling in any empty desks in the office, leaders must have a plan in place regarding what they wish to accomplish by bringing employees back. For example, it’s easy for companies to cite culture and camaraderie issues as the catalyst for returning to an in-person workplace. But, if no substantial work is done to rectify these issues within the office and employees are expected to sit in a blocked-off cubicle, any return efforts may likely do more harm than good.

Understanding the office’s role in an organization and having clear intentions provides employees with transparency that can influence positive culture. If employees are called back to increase collaboration, the office must reflect that. Implementing changes such as utilizing conference rooms weekly, open floor plans, and team-building events are all positive methods of improving interpersonal work connections.

Focusing on the team-building nature of the office space can also help eliminate issues regarding quiet quitting and productivity. When employees feel valued in the workplace, it’s easier for them to put in more effort than employees who feel stagnated. As leaders, it’s important to provide opportunities for teams to advance their skills and, in turn, their overall careers. All-in-all, implementing clear in-person strategies that appeal to employees and a company’s overall goals will help ease resistance when asking employees to return to the office.

Executives Unlimited: Helping Organizations Move Forward

Much like the office plays a vital role in developing a company’s culture, having the right executive team is crucial for planning and applying new strategies that will shape the offices of tomorrow. The leaders capable of bridging the gap between employee expectations and company goals will better position themselves for success than those who simply revert to the decade-old practices.

With a growing roster of clients from across the country, Executives Unlimited has years of experience helping organizations find and recruit lasting executive talent during times of stress and transition. In order to provide our clients with valuable insights, Executives Unlimited will continue to monitor our evolving job market.