Why the Return-to-Office Plan Remains a Challenge

A new study shows more leaders and workers increasingly embrace a return to the office. But leaders need to know their people before they make their office plans.

The hybrid office is here to stay, if workers have any say in the matter. But how hybrid? And how much say?

Those are a couple of the questions that emerge from a recent nationwide study from Building Owners and Managers International about the effect of COVID-19 on commercial real estate. Though an overwhelming majority of respondents polled this past summer—86 percent—say that office space “is or will be vital to conducting a successful business,” there’s a lot of wiggle room in terms of how remote work will happen in that context, and what that office space will ultimately look like.

BOMA’s survey found that tenants see “more value” in office space, and that they perceive an overall stronger interest in returning to the office. But that doesn’t spell the imminent return of the pre-pandemic office. Tellingly, 71 percent of tenants say that “even if the coronavirus threat disappears, we will likely continue investments in technology/infrastructure and policies/procedures to facilitate remote work.” And a majority—55 percent—expressed some degree of support for more telework.

71 percent of tenants say they’ll keep investing in remote work even if the COVID threat disappears.

How much more, though? Interestingly, despite various news reports in early and mid-2022 about bosses and employees clashing over return-to-work policies, the BOMA survey found that both groups are largely in alignment about preferred hybrid arrangements. Only around 15 percent of both groups want full-time remote work. More leaders than employees want a full-time return to the office, but not by much (28 to 24 percent). The plurality of respondents seem to prefer meeting three to four days per week (33 to 37 percent).

None of which, of course, should be interpreted as a prescription for what any individual association should do. Every organization has a sweet spot for how meaningful in-person office time, and a one-day-a-week arrangement can be as alienating (“Why did I come in when nobody else I work with is here?”) as a full-time one (“I’m spending how much on commuting and dry cleaning for this?”). Add to that the various inequities that can emerge in a hybrid environment, and the survey should be more of a prompt for a conversation about employee needs than a directive. 

Such conversations should start by acknowledging that, however much employees do or don’t want to come back to the office, they’ve spent too much time now doing their work differently to want to go back to old norms. Writing at Forbes last week, sociologist and author Tracy Brower points to various data points about how employees—Gen Z particularly—are willing to come into the office more often, and that employers should be comfortable setting firmer guidelines. But, she notes, the office can’t stay the same.

“People need plenty of choice about where, when and how they work,” she wrote. “And greater levels of choice are scientifically correlated with better engagement, satisfaction, performance, and happiness. But people also need to be able to choose an office that inspires them, connects them with colleagues and leaders, and enables them to do their best work.” Wherever your office is currently at, you’ll need a continuing conversation that attends to those questions of engagement, performance, and more.

How have you arrived at your return-to-office plans, and what kind of input do employees have in the decision-making process? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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