To RTO (return to office), or not to RTO, that is the question

December 13, 2022

Post-pandemic recovery has ushered in new workforce trends and ways of working. But are they here to stay?

As organizations and employees have adjusted to the new normal post-covid, we’ve arrived at an interesting inflection point for the future of remote work. Although fully remote work was a necessity during the pandemic, we are now seeing differing opinions emerging from employee to employer and from individual contributors to their managers.

Workers still want remote work options as executives consider how to proceed, making it all the more interesting to watch a tug of war unfolding. The tension here is emerging from a seemingly unified voice within the workforce and no one size fits all approach for companies. Despite the expressed preference of job seekers and employees alike to have remote flexibility, the job market and major employers say otherwise. As the amount of fully remote open roles has slowly begun to diminish on job boards leaving us all with the question, what’s next?

Will employers bend to popular opinion and the wants of the workforce? Or will they revert back to pre-pandemic ways of working? As we watch workforce trends and how they affect hiring into 2023, we might see something somewhere closer to the middle altogether.

We offer our thoughts and predictions as we discuss how the dichotomy between employer and employee preferences might play out in the context of global uncertainty and evolving workplace trends in years to come.

What are the long term effects of fully remote and hybrid working norms?

What happens to all the office space? It’s no secret that commercial real estate is a costly investment and operating expense. Regardless of the associated costs, many companies have used attractive office space in trendy downtown areas as one way to attract top talent.

This might be changing though.

Meta, Salesforce and Lyft are all looking to maneuver out of their commercial space due to financial headwinds according to LinkedIn News. (source: LinkedIn) We’ve also seen major tech companies like Amazon, Qualtrics and Zillow group take a new approach by restructuring office space and hybrid work model experimentation. (source: GeekWire)

As this evolves, organizations who have embraced models of 1-2 days in person in the office and others have taken on “work from anywhere” policies certainly have decisions to make when it comes to their physical office space.

One other question to consider is whether or not we will see a comeback of WeWork type spaces. Will big companies be the ones on the forefront renting out large swaths of their vast office space if they still have commercial leases?

What will changes to the way we socialize at work look like and how will concerns about mental health and social anxiety from zoom fatigue be addressed? Distributed teams require a different playbook than teams that sit all in one location and require changes to the way co-workers can socialize and build trust with one another.

The elephant in the room on this one is that we all know that zoom fatigue is a real phenomenon and the long term effects on employee mental health and well-being if they are permanently behind a camera remains a concern. The ability to bond, create trust and psychological safety as well as fostering real connection between co-workers and alignment to company mission statements while virtual is a challenge to be addressed. 

Will comp packages adapt? Remote work opened up candidate pools and took down many barriers for companies to find talent in tried and true tech markets in the US like San Francisco and Seattle as well as in emerging tech markets like Boise, Charlotte and Austin. We also saw many remote workers reaping the benefits of competitive pay found in these major tech hubs without the burden of moving. 

This is vastly different from what we’ve seen in the past as top tech companies have shelled out major compensation packages to entice top talent and relocate employees. Which poses the question if relocation practices will continue as pushes to return to offices remain or will there be a recalibration of what is truly sustainable long term? To remain competitive we might see companies offer top talent a choice to remain remote or move, and how will that affect their total compensation package.

As we see it, one of the underlying challenges to be addressed is how total comp packages will change over time as companies adjust for cost of living differences if they choose to be fully remote or hybrid.

What will be the major factors that will continue to shape attitudes towards “productivity” in the near future?

Will MAANG (Meta, Apple, Amazon, Netflix & Google) and other tech giants drive trends and attitudes towards remote work? Most of us have probably heard about how billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter, subsequently required everyone to return to the office and then saw a mass exodus from the company. Ouch!

Musk has not been shy about his opinions of remote work. He’s a main proponent of the attitude that remote workers simply are not working hard enough and we can’t help but wonder how this will affect other tech companies.

As the world looks to MAANG to set precedent and innovate we ask the question - will workers continue to flock to them as choice places of employment if they aren’t flexible on remote work?

There are distinct differences in views from employee to manager when it comes to productivity at home. Elon Musk isn’t the only one who has “productivity paranoia”, apparently managers at Microsoft do as well.

According to a recent internal survey of 20,000 Microsoft employees in 11 different countries, “While 87% of workers felt they worked as, or more, efficiently from home, 80% of managers disagreed.” (source: BBC)

That's a huge difference in perception and if these results exist at Microsoft, they likely exist in many other places as well. What we see is that deeply embedded ways of doing work and traditional performance management ideals on how we gauge someone’s productivity are likely to be a major tipping point to whether or not a company allows for fully remote work.

Company values are starting to shape their policies on remote, hybrid or in person environments rather than popular opinion. Because we see such a discrepancy between managers and their direct reports on productivity and efficiency, it seems as though a shift in manager trust and fundamental views on ways of working would need to take place in order to shape core company values.

Something to watch however will be the four day work week that’s being tested with success in other countries like the UK. Is this a trend that could also serve to redefine productivity in the US and shake everything up again? We think it’s a trend to watch.

Are hybrid working norms the silver bullet that will emerge to bridge the gap?

Hybrid models require major adjustments to company culture and many companies who have embraced this way of working are still in the “wait and see” mode. But could hybrid work models be the middle ground for disagreements on fully remote work?

This type of model that allows for both remote and in person work could be the flexible solution that wins over everyone. 

At least, Stanford Economics Professor Nicholas Bloom thinks so. He states that even if hybrid work falls in the short term, it’s here to stay. He attributes this to massive investments the tech sector is making in remote work tech that will serve to unite hybrid work forces and make managing remote employees much easier. (source: CNBC)

One thing we will watch for in both the short and long term are examples coming from the hybrid pioneers laying out any potential pitfalls that result from embracing hybrid work models as well as overt benefits. 

The future of remote work is… 

One thing we know for sure is that workplace norms are constantly changing and evolving. 

Right now, it seems as though many companies are beholden to their bottom line in this fluctuating, unpredictable global economy. With layoffs and talk of recession on the forefront, we predict that many companies might choose to play it safe when it comes to drastic changes to the way they operate for the foreseeable future. 

Another major factor at play in the decision to adapt working norms is overall company values. We will continue to see companies who codify either remote or in-person work into their value system as well as the few who are willing to be forerunners in the gray areas such as hybrid models. 

One other factor we can’t ignore is the competitive edge that diverse hiring markets provide. Finding the best candidates possible is something organizations simply cannot afford to ignore in the war for talent. Will large companies who have the funds to have office space in various places continue to relocate top talent to come out on top? Or will those who remain flexible also have a stake in the game? Perhaps the hybrid work model will be the great equalizer!

Regardless of all the market hearsay, there is a silver lining for employees who want remote options. Personal choice! 

Even though it seems as if a lot of companies are requiring at least some in-person office time, there are plenty of great organizations out there who have fully embraced a permanent remote workforce or hybrid solutions. Someday remote work may even be king again, but for now candidates who are searching for remote flexibility have options and can utilize staffing firms like Intelletec to find the right fit.

Contact a recruiter at Intelletec today to kick off your job search! 

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