Have Employers Given Up on Bringing People Back to the Office?

Sensational headlines offer competing arguments, but what's really going on?

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Mar 5, 2024

Employers have given up.

Trying to get people back to the office, that is. According to a panel survey by Perceptyx, the percentage of people working in remote or hybrid roles has stabilized, and so the push for a return to office has ended.

This may or may not reflect reality.

While remote work is still extremely popular among workers, the vast majority of people still work away from home. MIT researchers found that 27% of Americans were working hybrid or remotely in 2022, although they question whether that is accurate. They question whether that number could be as high as 50% if you change how you ask the questions and include the self-employed.

But even if that number is that high, it doesn’t mean employers don’t want people back in the office. In a different survey, found people want to work from home for the reasons that bosses fear:

  • 72% want the freedom to nap or exercise during the day
  • 73% say they want to watch TV while working
  • 62% cite concerns about their appearance and going back to work in-person
  • 75% want to stay home with their pets

Because CEOs are aware of this, any assumption that the stabilization of the number of people working remotely means that companies have given up on bringing them back to the office may be exaggerated.

It’s An Employers’ Market

Employers have their pick of candidates right now. Writing for Forbes, Jack Kelly explains that after mass layoffs in 2022 and 2023 in tech and other sectors, employers can make choices that they couldn’t make in 2021. He explains:

“Many bosses never fully embraced the work-from-home culture. Now that they have the upper hand, companies are ordering staff to return to the office, even if employees have moved out of state and don’t currently reside near headquarters. It’s been a resounding, ‘Come back, or else!’”

His opinion is backed by the job posts available on Indeed. A search for “human resources jobs” within the United States yielded 28,604 jobs at the time of writing this article — 2,388 hybrid and 1,323 remote. Marketing jobs produced 153,110  jobs, with 13,874 being remote and 10,400 being hybrid.

That gives us 4% of posted HR jobs and 9% of marketing jobs being fully remote. In other words, if you are looking for a new job, your potential employer wants you to come into the office.

Companies Do Better With People in the Office

Candidates want to work remotely or hybrid, but companies do want them back. Candidates who insist on working remotely will find fewer options and may find themselves the first out the door when things go wrong.

And while employees say that their productivity is better remotely, companies report the opposite. A ResumeBuilder survey found that organizations benefited from a return to the office. It found

  • 72% improved revenue
  • 81% improved productivity
  • 63% improved worker retention
  • 79% improved employee relationships
  • 75% improved employee culture

While some of these may be purely correlational results — after all, if the job market is poor, you are going to retain your current employees more easily than if it’s an employees’ job market — these are the types of numbers that encourage CEOs to want people back in the office.

Brenda Neckvatal, an entrepreneur and HR expert, explains that having people back in the office absolutely affects all the above. “Teams are created to accomplish the impossible or the things that one or two people can’t accomplish as the business grows,” Neckvagal points out. “Leaders strive for cohesive teams; a challenge they face is employee proximity.”

Of course, you see improved relationships when people see each other. Experts say it takes 200 hours of contact to create a close friendship and more to maintain it. With 40% of American adults reporting not having a close friend, working remotely doesn’t help.

This is not to say that companies’ job is to provide friendship for adults, but in terms of team-building, working together makes it easier to build relationships.

What This Means for Recruiting

“Candidates want the freedom to work remotely, hybrid occasionally,” explains Shenee Rutt, president of Laurel Virtual Solutions. “Employers who are hiring want people back in RTO. In my opinion, this means recruiters are going to have a much harder time finding the best fit for companies. The people have spoken; job seekers want you to know they demand more flexibility for work/life balance.”

Lisa Ciraolo, talent acquisition sourcer, agrees, saying, “It means that the more highly educated, qualified, and best candidates are not heard from because work from home is not an option. The cream of the crop know their value and will seek a better opportunity even with less pay.”

Perhaps Scott Ortes, vice president of operations at Suna Solutions, sums it up best:

“The disconnect between an employee’s desire for remote work and employer demands for in-office presence creates yet another obstacle that puts even the best recruiter’s negotiating skills to the test.  Recruiters are tasked with convincing candidates to accept potentially less flexibility and persuading companies to offer more remote options than they prefer. Their success hinges on their ability to present compelling arguments to both sides about the benefits of finding a middle ground and ensuring that the work environment is the best match for the role, company, and candidate. This is, of course, stacked against the many other factors that a recruiter must consider when proctoring a job offer.”

In other words, recruiters see fewer top candidates apply for the in-office jobs. And recruiters have to work harder to persuade candidates to accept jobs they wouldn’t want to. But, while they may be able to hold out for what they want, they may be the first out the door.

As The Wall Street Journal reported: “Workers logging on from home five days a week were 35% more likely to be laid off in 2023 than their peers who put in office time, according to an analysis of two million white-collar workers conducted by employment data provider Live Data Technologies. The analysis showed 10% of fully remote workers were laid off last year, compared with 7% of those working in an office full time or on a hybrid basis.”

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