The Great Return Is Not Going So Great

Employers and candidates are increasingly at odds about work arrangements.

Article main image
Aug 24, 2023

Now that The Great Resignation is behind us, we seem to be entering the era of The Great Return — The Great Return to the Office, that is.

Growing numbers of employers are instituting return-to-the-office mandates, which aren’t exactly a hit with employees or job candidates. According to a 2023 Greenhouse report, 76% of employees say they’ll actively search for or be open to a new job if their company rolls back flexible work policies, and nearly half of all candidates won’t even apply to a job that doesn’t offer a hybrid or fully remote schedule.

To make matters worse, 42% of companies with return-to-office mandates are experiencing higher levels of employee attrition than they expected, and nearly one-third that enforce these mandates are struggling with recruitment, according to a Unispace report.

As with so many talent-related issues, there are no simple solutions here. Of course, there are many more in-person jobs than remote ones, whether that be in the store, the plant, the office, wherever. And some companies need their employees to be in the office every day or most days. But there’s no escaping the fact that both employees and candidates have a strong preference for flexible work arrangements.

If companies want to fill their open jobs, keep their talent pipelines flowing, maintain high retention levels, and strengthen their employer brands, many may need to recalibrate their thinking regarding flexible work.

While there are benefits to having team members together in the same location, or at least periodically together — benefits related to teamwork, morale, productivity, innovation, company culture, and more — our small team has been remote for years and we’ve done OK.

Meanwhile, I also believe that employers haven’t carefully tracked and measured these metrics and whether flexible work options actually reduce (or improve) them. That seems like a logical and worthwhile undertaking.

However, according to a recent study from economists at MIT and UCLA, productivity dropped 18% when people worked from home. The study included observing data-entry workers in Chennai, India, across two groups — those working from the office and those working from home — over test periods of eight weeks. No matter the validity of this study, there are so many factors that impact productivity, including overall wellbeing and the commute to and from the office versus working remotely.

Although solutions to the flexible-work conundrum will vary from company to company, all employers share one thing in common: the need to recognize that change and compromise are inevitable and a two-way street in the new world of work.

The Impact to Talent Attraction and Recruiting

Make no mistake, this whole situation isn’t merely a difference of opinion between employers and workers over a perk or a people policy. Return-to-the-office mandates go right to the heart of a company’s culture and values — two of the top characteristics job seekers care about when considering prospective employers, as revealed by Talent Board’s most recent candidate experience benchmark research.

Millions of workers who jumped ship during The Great Resignation or who left the workforce altogether are finally settling back into new roles. Slowly. In fact, millions of workers still haven’t returned to the workforce, and millions more continue to look for more desirable jobs (although those numbers have been decreasing). The reason we continue to feel these impacts in the talent market is because these job seekers are no longer simply “looking for a job.” They’re looking for an organization as well — the right organization. An organization whose values and culture are in sync with their own values and cultural sensibilities. An organization where they feel respected.

As a number of research firms and reports have shown, one-third to well over one-half of all workers desire flexible work arrangements, and workers overwhelmingly feel that these types of arrangements convey an employer’s respect for their employees.

And just to be clear, this isn’t a generation-based issue. A study by LiveCareer found that all generations of workers expect flexible work options: specifically, 76% of millennials, 69% of Gen Z, and 64% of Gen X. Baby Boomers, too, “appreciate reduced schedules, shifts, and the option to work from home,” the study found.

The battle over return-to-the-office mandates is going to rage on for months and probably years to come. Likely, study by LiveCareer and remote work options will eventually take root in many organizations that are currently fighting against them. One of the chief reasons will be the relentless need for new talent in a recruiting and hiring world that will never be the same.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!