Return to Office – Is Remote and Hybrid Working Almost Over?

I write this from the comfort of my bed, draped in a swaddled cloth like a baby being whisked away to a land of sleep. I am at my most comfortable, silk pajamas cloaked about overworked skin. This is my nine-to-five since the height of the pandemic which we shall not name. If there was a silver lining to the destruction and devastation of the year 2020 (inconsequential to the bigger picture of life), it was the adaption of hybrid workplaces. If I were to return to the office, I may disintegrate from both anxiety and lack of creature comforts. As a lucky employee that has worked remotely for three years, I may never be the same again.

Daft anecdote aside, the world of remote work may be coming to an end. CEOs all over the country have begun a war against the at-home working schedule, believing that bringing employees back to offices will call for an increase in both production and company culture. It may be the end of the home-ridden dream that many have taken place in over the last few years.

But is it truly over? Is it time to pack away your sweatpants, pick up the suit, and return to the office? Or will the remote work trend continue to live on, as many economic writers predicted?

The Happiest Place On Earth… Disney Offices

As of November 2022, 71-year-old Bob Iger took back the reigns as the CEO of Disney. The corporate juggernaut has been facing tumultuous times over the past few years, despite seemingly owning every entertainment company known to many. The company’s stock lost around 37% of its value in 2022 due to a plethora of changes and losses in streaming services like Disney+ and Hulu.

Regardless, former and returning CEO Iger plans to implement an array of old-school tactics to right the ship. Within the first two months of his tenure, Iger decided to squash the entirety of the hybrid workplace already set in stone by the company. As of March, all Disney employees will be required to return to the office, working four days a week in person.

In a memo sent to employees, Iger noted, “As I’ve been meeting with teams throughout the company over the past few months, I’ve been reminded of the tremendous value in being together with the people you work with. In a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors.”

Iger continues to pound the drum on the idea of creativity, stating that it’s the main need to refresh and improve the company. We’ll get to this in a bit.

Other Companies Following Suit

Though Disney may have been the first animation company to introduce synchronized sound in films in 1928, they are far from the first company to make employees return to the office following 2020.

Goldman Sachs brought workers back to in-person schedules in the summer of 2021. Apple has brought back workers for at least three days a week, Snapchat’s parent company asked workers to come back for four days a week as of February 2023, and Twitter already saw a huge shift in remote work policies once Elon Musk took over.

As far as major companies go, the remote schedule seems to be over. Many are being asked to return to the office this year, as COVID-19 sees a reduction in weekly cases and deaths of 22% and 12% since December.

If the overall danger of COVID-19 is truly over, then why continue to use the hybrid working measures implemented during the height of the pandemic? What’s the point?

While the question is being asked by major CEOs, it may be a lack of touch with the common employee causing the interruption in the first place. It’s almost as if those that run multi-million-dollar corporations don’t understand the plight and basis of normal employee jobs. “There’s no way someone can get as much work done at home,” they yell into the abyss.

Creativity, Really?

Let’s circle back to the overall point made by Bob Iger. In his attempt to spark Disney and its many sectors, he continues to push the point of instilling more creativity. His main reason for bringing employees back to the office (or so he says) is to help bring more creativity and production to the various teams.

But is Iger, a muti-millionaire for over 20 years, just out of touch? Does he not truly understand the true nature of hybrid work?

Though we may raise our fists at any figurehead and scream tunes against the 1%, Iger may not be incorrect.

A 2022 study by MIT found that remote work may significantly lower creativity and production, all teetering on the lack of work relationships.

The study involved 2,834 MIT research staff, faculty, and postdoctoral researchers, for 18 months starting in December 2019. When the campuses went into remote work settings in March 2020, the researchers looked back and forward to take note of the changes amongst the professionals.

To keep high science brain stuff (it’s MIT, after all) from sounding too complex, we will break down the findings into layman’s terms.

Weak Ties

To fully understand the study (even in layman’s terms), we must define the sociology aspect of ‘weak ties’.

Weak ties refer to the bonds we create with acquaintances. People we have to spend time with, but don’t necessarily consider important to our personal lives. Think: family and friends are strong ties and coworkers are weak ties. Ultimately, these weak ties are considered extremely useful in the workplace (despite the weak name). They allow us to share ideas and energy and discuss innovation.

There is a sociological aspect in regard to being surrounded by other brains with individual pasts, thought processes, and ideas. It helps instill an involved and intricate creation process from multiple perspectives.

The MIT study showed weak ties diminished by 38% a year after the pandemic on March 23, 2020, and further got reduced to an estimated cumulative loss of over 5,100 new weak ties in the next 18 months. Therefore, eventually lowering the innovation and communication necessary to keep a workplace creative.

The study hypothesized that weak ties would return to normal if in-person work restarted. It also noted that hybrid work environments may all be sufficient to create the necessary weak ties.

Long-Term Productivity May Drop, Too

Microsoft held a similar study, following 60,000 of their employees over a six-month period, starting just before the start of the pandemic. Though a similar study, Microsoft was more concerned with the reduction (or improvement) of productivity during remote work circumstances.

Unfortunately for those currently working from the couch, their findings were against that of remote work. Ultimately, the research found that while productivity may spike in the short term, it’s likely to reduce over time. This reduction may be loosely connected to the idea of fewer social ties like the aforementioned MIT study.

Less communication between humans equals less productive, problem-solving, and creativity. As a species, we are supposed to work in groups to solve issues, whether human-related or business-oriented. We are a social species. Without in-person communication, productivity and creativity are certainly going to spiral downward.

Long story short, we need in-person communication to work effectively as employees, even if just half of the time. Therefore, big corporations moving toward a return to the office for a few days a week makes sense.

Sorry fellow pajama workers.

But Is the Trend Really Ending?

“Remote work is this incredible invitation to really get good at building inclusive cultures.”

— Shane Metcalfe of 15Five

Though higher-ups may be striving to squash the remote work trend, the results are contradicting. Not only are remote jobs still at their peak, but employees seem to prefer the new ways of going about their daily lives.

Remote jobs now make up more than 15% of the total opportunities in the U.S., a strong difference from the 4% in 2020. With just a quick glance on job boards like Indeed, you will find an overwhelming amount of jobs calling for remote or hybrid workers. So much so, you are unlikely to believe that companies believe the at-home work is gleamingly negative.

This 15% is technically a decrease. At remote work’s peak in April of 2022, remote jobs took up 20% of the total opportunities. It’s dropping slightly, sure, but the attention toward it is still high. While only 15% of job posts are remote, LinkedIn’s data showed that these posts received more than half of the total applications as of September.

The trend is on its way out or is being changed by the hybrid workplace, sure, but the employees still want remote work. Do the employees’ wants outweigh the employers, though?

Employees Like Hybrid Workplaces

survey by Slack found that 72% of workers in six different countries prefer a hybrid remote-office model with only 12% preferring to always work in an office setting. 13% of surveyed workers would like to always work from home and never return to the office.

Generation Z (who are set to make up 27% of the world workforce by 2025) believes that remote work is necessary due to the increasing dread and health situations that the COVID-19 pandemic brought about.

Zippia found that 26% of employees in the U.S. now work remotely (as of 2022). Furthermore, according to a study from GOBankingRates, 29% of Gen Z say they prefer to work remotely (the lowest of all generations), and 27% say remote working is a necessity (the highest of all generations). Though conflicting information on paper, the idea is clear: Gen Z doesn’t like to work from home, but they understand the importance of it for both mental and physical health.

Simply put, the future of the working world believes that hybrid workplaces are the future. They understand that a return to the office is necessary for productivity, but they have seen the fear and danger that an in-person world can bring in the midst of a life-altering pandemic. Furthermore, they have seen the possibility of a hybrid workplace and know it’s a workable concept

For some young workers, hybrid and remote working are all they know. Eventually, those youngins will be the majority of the working world. Feel old?

Employees No Longer Have the Power

In the midst of the pandemic, employees began surging with power. Jobs were having a hard time filling roles and employees were reevaluating their ideals and goals. The situation stirred into a tornado-like whirlwind, causing the Great Resignation.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47.8 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in 2021. Ultimately, people decided that they were no longer happy with getting by. Workers realized with rightful thought that they are worth more than they had been given. At the time, the power dynamic of the working world shifted in their favor.

Workers had demands and employers were obligated to negotiate. Unfortunately, that dynamic is shifting back toward business, leaving the worker powerless again.

In 2022, over 964 tech companies laid off over 149,876 workers globally. Though the numbers may seem skewed, surrounding an industry with millions of workers and thousands of companies, the significance is as crucial as you could possibly imagine. So critical, in fact, that WRAL Tech Wire has created an entire list for ‘Layoff Watch’ this year.

Other industries began following the trend, creating a Layoff Contagion. Simply put, companies began to believe that cutting labor teams was the new trend and ironically made it the new trend by following it blindly.

While we are beginning to rebuild from the trauma, there are still chess pieces being moved out of reaction. The downturn in economic activity and the inflation of prices has everyone (including tech companies) planning for a recession. Despite some believing things will begin to alleviate next year, a recession seems imminent.

HP Inc. said it will let 4,000 employees go by 2025. Amazon CEO, Andy Jassy, said the company will continue to lay off more employees in early 2023. Companies will continue to scramble to combat the topsy-turvy tech industry. Other companies will continue to follow through layoff contagion.

Recession May Squash Hybrid

Another LinkedIn survey found that 68% of executives feared that a looming recession and economic uncertainty would cause them to have to undo a majority of the hybrid workplaces they have created over the past three years.

“Around the world, we’re seeing hiring slow and companies freeze recruitment due to economic uncertainty, with business leaders under intense pressure to manage costs and boost productivity,” Josh Graff, managing director for the EMEA and LATAM regions at LinkedIn, told CNBC Make It.

“Where the pandemic led to a shift towards flexible working and initiatives to support employees, the balance of power is now shifting back to employers,” he added.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to infer the worst. Though employees may prefer hybrid workplaces, they no longer have the majority of the power. Employers believe that in-person work is best for productivity. Therefore, with the newfound power, employers can force workers to return to the office.

Remote Work Stats

  • 44% of companies do not allow remote work. – Owl Labs
  • 16% of companies globally are fully remote. – Owl Labs
  • Remote work is great for the environment by cutting emissions. A study by the state of Utah on the ecological impact of a 4-day workweek found that during the first ten months, the project saved over $1.8 million in energy costs and a reduction of at least 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from closing the large office building on Fridays.
  • At least 50% of employers believe remote work reduces absenteeism. – Zippia
  • Experts predict that there will be 36.2 million Americans working remotely by 2025. This is a 417% increase from pre-pandemic levels, where there were only 7 million people working remotely. – Zippia
  • For the twelve months ending on January 31, 2021, Zoom’s revenue amounted to $2.65 billion, up more than 300 percent from just $623 million the previous year. In the fiscal year that ended January 31, 2022, Zoom’s grew another 55 percent to $4.10 billion. – Statista

Hope In the Darkness

Employees aren’t as powerless as you’d imagine, though. In fact, after the massive impact of the Great Resignation, employees may never be as powerless as they were before the pandemic.

With the employee demand for hybrid work comes a scare of employers demolishing it. If an employer decides to get rid of hybrid and flexible workplaces, demanding their employees return to the office, they run the risk of losing the workers. Competitor businesses will be able to swoop up former workers by offering said hybrid capabilities. It now becomes a bargaining chip for companies striving for new talent.

Consequently, if employees continue to demand hybrid workplaces, businesses will continue to offer them to keep employees happy. Someone will be willing to do it, especially if it guarantees great talent.

“Companies who wind back progress on remote and flexible working risk demotivating their workforce and pushing them to competitors that offer more attractive options,” Graff said. “Flexibility is going to increasingly become a matter of survival for businesses.”

Companies that are willing to compromise and adapt may find themselves at the forefront of employee happiness and positive recruitment.

“It’s those who see this period as an opportunity, who are prepared to adapt and iterate, and explore new ways of working that will outperform competitors in the long-term,” Graff concluded.

The Current Job Market Proves This

The aforementioned statement has been proven by recent statistics. Smaller companies that are not set in their ways are currently winning the labor market. We discussed this entirely in our recent article, but we will paraphrase it here:

When large companies are making colossal employment cuts, small and medium-sized companies are able to amass greater and more significant workforces. Therefore, those smaller employers are now adding jobs and hiring at a higher rate than before.

ADP’s latest survey of private payrolls found that large employers cut 151,000 jobs in December, while firms with fewer than 500 employees added nearly 400,000 new jobs that month.

Those less significant companies are able to pick up the layoffs of the juggernauts. Those that have been cut from their jobs are quickly finding replacement careers, even if the payment is lower. In the current economy, there isn’t much of an option.

These smaller companies can provide the flexibility of hybrid workplaces to make sure they secure these new workers. While big companies, restricted by their significant layoffs, have to remain to do things the way they used to. And with higher salary offers, no one will argue with the bigger companies. The smaller companies are forced to negotiate with employees, and employees want hybrid workplaces.

It’s all a contradicting and confusing chart of A=B=C. Regardless, hybrid workplaces continue to have importance in recruitment.

Conclusion: Is It Time to Return to the Office?

“Many, many companies in recent months have insisted that people come back to the office five days a week, only to reverse that mandate within about a week after hearing that they’d lose their best and brightest,” Julia Pollak, the chief economist ZipRecruiter, told the New York Times.

“[Remote work] is not just used as a sort of perk in a tight labor market that’s going to go away in a slacker labor market,” she added.

It’s impossible to predict the future, but it’s clear that hybrid work isn’t going anywhere (for now). We have had three years of it successfully and employees like it. Though power dynamics shifting may cause it to diminish, it will always be a possibility to remain. Some companies have found that it creates a more profitable or affordable workspace. Some companies prefer it. As long as someone is providing it, competitors will have to follow, creating a chain reaction.

Regardless of the negatives and positives, it’s hard to see the world without a few remote jobs, especially in certain industries. While some jobs will be better off returning to in-person workplaces, some simply don’t need it. For example, if a graphic designer is the only graphic designer at their company, why do they need to be in the office? It’s not as if they have weak ties, being that they are the only one in that field. At that point, it’s almost more expensive to keep them at the office.

It’s the future, man. Welcome to it.