Return to office? Not so fast.
Examining the risks and pitfalls of requiring employees to return to a physical office environment
Byline: Written by Vinciane de Pape, DEI Advisory Lead at Bloom
Much has been said about the state of work over the last few years. Many organizations adapted to working remotely when the pandemic hit, some have continued to operate under a hybrid model, and others still are now starting to require their employees to return to the office. There are risks and pitfalls to each of these models, but the push to “go back to normal” is one that, in our perspective, is particularly misguided, especially as it relates to creating and fostering anti-oppressive workplace experiences.
Who wants to return to in-person work?
Let’s first examine who wants to return to a physical office space before we identify some of the reasons why folks may not want to. In 2021, Future Forum, a research consortium led by Slack, conducted a survey of over 10,000 global knowledge workers. Overwhelmingly, it was white men who wanted to return to the office full-time. This isn’t surprising, because North American work culture has historically been built and designed to accommodate the logistical, social, and physical comforts of white men. (Anecdotally, many of us at Bloom have also heard men say they come to work to “escape” their wives and families. Big yuck. #notallmen).
Additionally, another survey from 2021 revealed that men tend to suffer more from working remotely than women. Men were more likely than women to feel that their chances of a promotion or advancement had been hurt by working remotely; that their professional skills suffered; that their ability to collaborate suffered; and that effective real-time communication has become more challenging. Layer that with the fact that the vast majority of North American organizations are led by white men, and it becomes clear why there is a growing push to require employees to return to co-located workspaces.
In our experience, the primary reasons leaders state for wanting to return to in-office work are to improve productivity and camaraderie. This oft-cited study indicates that remote employees work longer hours and less efficiently. Other studies point to less collaboration — a particularly important piece for knowledge workers — and increased social isolation. It’s also worth noting that many leaders simply do not trust workers, as evidenced by the increase in activity monitoring and workplace surveillance systems, and the ability to work from home is often positioned as a privilege that has to be earned. However, for every study railing on the disadvantages of remote or hybrid work, there are others that clearly demonstrate the benefits of flexible work, particularly for folks from historically marginalized communities.
So, what’s a leader to do? For organizations with a stated commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, it starts with understanding who holds the least amount of power and privilege in your organization and prioritizing the removal of barriers for folks from historically marginalized groups.
Why are some folks hesitant to go back to the office?
There are many reasons why employees may not want to go back to in-person work full-time, but they can largely be grouped into these fives themes: health, accessibility, transportation, family care, and mental health (which are all directly related to race, gender, class, and ability). Let’s examine each of these individually.
First things first, the pandemic is not over. Full stop. Reported cases of COVID-19 have remained steady since the spring of 2022 and people are still contracting the virus, many of whom are struck with something far more severe than a common cold. While many (typically healthy, non-disabled) people are no longer seriously impacted by COVID-19, folks with chronic health conditions, people who are immunocompromised, folks with disabilities, older adults, and people with other health risks are still not safe to be in shared spaces with large groups. Folks with increased health risks are not outliers, and they are not expendable.
Despite employment laws which require employers to provide workplace accommodations, and legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), which require businesses to adhere to accessibility standards, the truth is that most workplaces (physical and virtual) are not designed for folks with disabilities or people who are neurodivergent. There still exist many environmental barriers that inhibit the full participation of disabled and neurodivergent folks in the workplace. Many people with ADHD, for example, find open-plan office spaces distracting and overwhelming, and some folks on the Autism spectrum experience sensory sensitivities brought on by noise and lighting. I once worked in a 14-story office building where the only accessible washroom in the entire building was on the main floor. Imagine having to wait for the elevator every time nature calls! It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that some disabled folks would prefer to work from home, where the environment is comfortable and guarantees dignity.
With the cost of living rising nearly everywhere across the country, it simply isn’t affordable for most people to live close to where they work. This means increased commute time and increased transportation costs. For folks who can afford to drive (and we know the price of vehicles has gone up, too), the cost of parking close to work is wildly prohibitive in most cities. And for those who rely on public transportation, access to public transit is not always built equally. Infrastructure for public transit tends to be far less developed in both low-income neighbourhoods as well as new-development suburbs, where the cost of housing is lower than in inner-city neighbourhoods. A 20-minute drive to work for someone who lives inner city can easily take upwards of 90 minutes for someone who has to make multiple transfers on public transportation from a more affordable part of town.
The unequal division of household and caregiving labour amongst hetero couples is well-documented. When millions of parents started working from home in 2020, women continued to do the majority of the care work, including 33% of married working moms who identified themselves as their children’s sole care provider. Read that again and let it sink in. Knowing that women will continue to bear the burden of family care (until society drastically changes), offering the flexibility to work from home helps parents manage pick ups/drop offs, allows the opportunity to multi-task (like throwing in a load of laundry when you’re between meetings), and cuts down on commute time that could be spent on a multitude of other caregiving activities.
Much can be said about the importance of social connection as a fundamental part of good mental health, but not all social interactions are positive. Many folks from historically marginalized communities experienced a welcome reprieve from microaggressions when they switched to working from home. Additionally, many employees also experienced a break from having to “cover” at work. Covering is the exhausting and emotionally taxing practice of working to conform and assimilate to white euro-centric standards of professionalism, from changing one’s physical appearance (makeup, hairstyles, clothing), to the way one speaks (code-switching), to one’s general demeanour and self-expression (not wanting to appear “too” Black, or “too” gay, for example). Understanding the emotional and psychological toll it takes on folks to field these disaffirming experiences, it makes sense why many people prefer to keep working from home.
What are the risks of requiring employees to return to a physical office?
For any organization, your people are your greatest asset. Hiring and retaining talent are both critical to organizational success and requiring folks to return to in-person work full-time jeopardizes each. According to this 2021 survey, if they’re not allowed to continue working from home, 60 percent of women said they’ll look for a new job, compared to 52 percent of men. And a majority (80 percent) of women — compared to 69 percent of men — said remote working options are among the most important factors to consider when evaluating a new job.
A 2021 study from AngusReid found similar results and noted that only 5% of workers surveyed actually want to return to the office full-time. This poses a huge threat to retaining talent and may create serious barriers when recruiting and hiring. Despite murmurs of a looming recession, the job market is still competitive, and many existing and prospective employees will choose to work for a company that offers flexible or remote work over one that doesn’t.
For organizations with a stated commitment to anti-oppression, requiring folks to return to a physical office environment does a grave disservice to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts. Employees from historically marginalized communities, particularly those with multiple marginalized identities, are the most likely to be negatively impacted as a result of being forced to go back to the office.
This is highlighted in McKinsey’s most recent Women in the Workplace report, in what they call “The Great Breakup”: the fact that women are demanding more from work (including more flexibility), and they’re leaving their companies in unprecedented numbers to get it. The report found that only one in 10 women employees want to work from the office most of the time and indicated that many women point to hybrid work schedules as a key reason for joining or sticking with an employer. As a result of the disconnect between what employees want and what employers are providing, women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rate we’ve ever observed (at a higher rate than men in leadership), and this is especially true for racialized women. The report warns “If companies don’t take action, they won’t just lose their women leaders; they risk losing the next generation of women leaders, too. Young women are even more ambitious, and they place a higher premium on working in an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace. They’re watching senior women leave for better opportunities, and they’re prepared to do the same.”
This creates a real risk of workplaces becoming more homogeneous (read: mostly white men), with diversity concentrated in the lowest rankings of the organization. DEI wins are often hard-fought and the decision to “go back to the way things were” could mean exactly that: rolling back on years of progress.
Where is the disconnect?
Knowing that there are so many pitfalls to requiring employees to return to the office full-time, why is there still such a push for it? Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning may be contributing factors.
Confirmation bias leads people to believe that their experience is the same as everyone else’s experience. It’s easy to ask your employees to return to the office when you’re a leader who can afford a nanny or au pair to help with childcare duties, when you can afford to live inner city, when your commute is under half an hour, when you can afford to park close to work, and when you can afford to drive instead of relying on public transit. This just simply isn’t the reality for most workers. Confirmation bias also extends to feelings of inclusion. Folks who regularly enjoy privilege and inclusion at work tend to believe that their experience is one that is universal. Again, this is not the reality for everyone.
Motivated reasoning, a cousin of confirmation bias, leads people to look much harder for flaws in arguments that oppose their position, rather than critically examining their own reasoning with the same fervour. This is why we observe leaders refuting all of the reasons we’ve listed above and still anchoring on the handful of studies that support their position, or relying entirely on anecdotal data. This is also why gathering real data is key to making data-informed decisions rather than relying on personal bias.
What to do about it?
Our recommendation to leaders is to approach a return to in-person work with scientific curiosity. If the hypothesis is that having the entire company return to the office will improve productivity and camaraderie, we need to put this theory to the test. The risks of forcing people to go back to the office are too great not to make an evidence-based decision.
This begins with gathering months of baseline data, based on the organization’s current hybrid or remote working model. To allow for an accurate capture, we recommend no less than 4 months’ worth of surveying on KPIs like billable hours, completion of OKRs, engagement scores, and regular pulse checks. It’s also important to take note of trends related to both seniority within the organization as well as identity. Where possible, work to segment the data so you can identify how people with greater institutional power and privilege feel compared to those with less. Additionally, be sure to position this as an experiment and communicate that clearly to employees.
Next comes the exciting part: We take an adventurous leap into the unknown and move back to in-person work full-time and measure the same KPIs, again for no fewer than 4 months. After this months-long experiment, we examine the results. Have productivity and employee engagement increased notably? That might confirm your hypothesis, and you’d be well-positioned to put together a comprehensive plan to welcome team members back to the office.
Perhaps, on the other hand, the results reveal other insights. Has productivity increased at the expense of engagement, or vice versa? Have we observed negligible changes across either dimension? Have productivity and engagement decreased significantly? How do those dynamics break down by seniority, by race, by gender? If only the most privileged employees are enjoying the benefits of in-person work, that’s a clear sign that the best decision is to move back to hybrid or remote work.
Without this data, you are operating off of assumptions. Gathering this data will take time and resources, but making a decision that could spell disaster for future DEI efforts should be treated with the care and intention it deserves. One last piece of parting wisdom: If your organization intends to survey team members, the results must be taken seriously. Asking for employee input and then disregarding their opinions, preferences, and wishes is guaranteed to lead to a loss of organizational trust. Listen to your people when they tell you what they need to perform at their best.
Need support in creating more positive and affirming workplace experiences for everyone? Bloom offers context-specific DEI learning experiences for organizations and individuals alike. To learn more, get in touch with us here.