More Post-Pandemic Return-to-Office Mandates? (Part One)
More Post-Pandemic Return-to-Office Mandates? (Part One)

Sometimes, return-to-office means working alone at work ...Once buzzing with life, the modern office is often quieter in today’s post-pandemic world – despite return-to-office mandates, the threat of these mandates, or hybrid work.

With many employees still working remotely or hybrid, desks remain vacant. Some employees A new challenge has arisen. Despite research published by the Harvard Business School and Fortune Magazine showing that remote workers are more productive, some employers claim that in-office work boosts productivity. A tug-of-war has emerged between management eager for a full (or at least hybrid) return to work and employees cherishing the flexibility of working remotely.

As an Organizational Psychologist, HR Consultant, and Coach, I’ve been observing closely the evolving dynamics of the workplace during my career. After more than four years of remote and hybrid work arrangements, many organizations are implementing stricter return-to-office policies. As many as 90% of companies are expected to have some form of return-to-office policy by the end of 2024, with 51% already requiring in-person work and 39% planning to do so by year’s end,​​ according to a study by ResumeBuilder.com.). With the majority of companies gearing up for a return to the office, there’s a pressing need for both employers and employees to be intentional when navigating this change.

The Remote Work Experiment

Digital work allows employers to monitor remote and hybrid employees, and in-person workThe sudden shift to remote work during the pandemic unveiled many success stories, challenges, and critical lessons. Many companies have seen that focusing on outcomes rather than optics can lead to higher-quality work, even in a remote setting. This approach underscores the importance of outcome-based management in remote work environments—rather than the monitoring and surveilling of employees—where traditional measures like “face time” in the office are less relevant.

The transition to remote work wasn’t without its challenges. Studies have found that the lack of spontaneous interactions, often termed “bounce time,” has impacted innovation and team dynamics. This absence of quick, pre and post-meeting discussions and impromptu brainstorming sessions in a virtual environment can leave some team members feeling out of the loop and stunt the creative process (see this HBR article, How Teams Work: Lessons from the Pandemic, for more details).

However, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote work practices that might have taken years to implement. Organizations have discovered the benefits of remote and hybrid work, such as access to a more diverse talent pool, a more level playing field for employees with disabilities, and a reduction in the need for (and cost of) physical office space.

Return-to-office, but not all staff working in same spaceAs we continue to adjust to a post-pandemic world, these benefits are compelling organizations to consider a mix of hub, home, and hybrid work arrangements. The challenge lies in ensuring that remote workers are not disadvantaged in terms of opportunities and experiences. Research reported by Cornell University highlights this issue, showing that remote workers are less likely to be promoted than their office-based counterparts.

Productivity and Employee Satisfaction

The narrative is overwhelmingly positive in terms of productivity and employee satisfaction. In 2022, the Pew Research Centre reported that workers had expressed a preference for remote work, driven by the desire for flexibility and balance while remaining as productive as they were in the office.

Pros of Returning to the Office

The benefits of returning to the office extend beyond mere productivity. For some employees, one of the primary advantages of in-person work is the enhancement of mental well-being. For employees who experience belonging and psychological safety, workplace interactions and connections can combat feelings of isolation and loneliness, positively contributing to physical and mental health.

Two white female colleagues enjoy coffee togetherLaura Putnam, an expert on workplace well-being, emphasizes the importance of social connections at work for overall well-being and notes that these connections can lead to greater job satisfaction and career development opportunities. In-person interactions, such as casual “watercooler” chats, are crucial in building relationships and can significantly increase employee engagement.

Furthermore, the traditional 9-to-5 structure in an office helps set clear boundaries, thereby reducing the risk of employee burnout, which is often associated with remote work. This environment also fosters synergy among coworkers, enhancing team spirit and collaboration. The physical office space, including areas like coffee machines and activity areas, plays a role in nurturing an employee’s potential and productivity, contributing to long-term company success.

Some people are convinced that the spontaneity of face-to-face interactions, enriched by non-verbal cues like body language, can spark more open and deeply engaging conversations, thereby kindling the flames of creativity. This dynamic is particularly noticeable in brainstorming sessions, where ideas flow more naturally and rapidly compared to the structured format of scheduled virtual meetings. To be fair, however, it’s important to note that some people (including neurodiverse people) are more productive when working in environments where there are fewer distractions. Personally, I often feel just as creative when working on my own as I do when brainstorming with others. One of my favourite organizational psychologists, Dr. Adam Grant, wrote an article for Time Magazine where he explained: “Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work.”

A client who works with a local advertising agency shared how the simplicity of posing a quick question or spontaneously convening a brief meeting with a colleague in person contrasts starkly with the more cumbersome and less dynamic process of organizing Zoom calls. This ease of interaction not only accelerates the creative process but also enhances the quality of ideas generated.

In essence, the return to the office offers a blend of social, psychological, and professional advantages, contributing to a more holistic and satisfying work experience.

That said, there are also many good reasons for employees to prefer working from home. In Part Two of this post, I’ll discuss The Cons of Return-to-Office Policies.


Did this article spark any career-related questions, plans or concerns?

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If you enjoyed this topic or are interested in ongoing professional and leadership development, you’ll also enjoy reading or listening to How to Be Resilient in Your Career: Facing up to Barriers at Work, my book that was published in 2023 by Routledge. It’s available in print, as an eBook, and on Audible.


More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.

I/O Advisory Services Inc. – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations TM.

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