The Return to Office Debate

The Return to Office Debate is getting UGLY. Many of the big tech companies as well as other global organisations are backtracking on their commitments to support remote working yet the research just doesn’t substantiate their reasoning.  Are they just LYING to you or is this part of a larger plan that they have ?

Background to the Debate

Early 2020 was tough – in fact brutal.  Covid-19 hit the world hard and the impact on humanity was immense.  But part of that impact was on how we handled the various lockdowns that occurred across the world.  Instead of the hours of commuting on busy public transport or being sat in endless queues of traffic, then squeezed into small, noisy office spaces we all ended up having to figure out quickly how to work remotely and still get our jobs done.  Unless, of course, you got furloughed because you HAD to be in a cafe, a shop, a building site, or whatever.  The point is that a LOT of work innovation happened in a VERY short period of time to ensure that most companies were able to survive this horrendous pandemic.

The amazing thing is, many companies found that their productivity rates actually improved with people working remotely.  It was tough, but we figured out how to get things done better, faster and we cut through lots of layers of bureaucracy that had been holding many people, departments and companies back.  These improvements were hailed by almost everyone as an amazing new dawn for work – an awakening for how work could be.  Many companies committed to support remote work forever.

But move forward just a couple of years and the attitudes to remote working were already starting to change as demands to be in the office started to increase.  Now we find ourselves in a situation where lots of companies are demanding a return to office – RTO –  including many of those that had only recently committed to forever support remote work just a short period before.

We need to recognise that people are in different situations when it comes to being in the office. Some live close to the office and want to be there every day – it provides a clear break between work and home life.  Some have moved further away during covid and so now getting to an office is a major issue.

And so here we are – lots of companies saying that we need to be back in the office for productivity reasons.  The amazing thing is that the discussions around productivity gains by going back to the office for most of the week just don’t stack up.  So what is going on ?


The headlines that most of the companies insisting on Return to Office are around productivity and innovation, but there are some other areas to review as well.  It will be no surprise that some of these were the issues that we hit at the start of Covid-19.

So let’s look at the biggest item – productivity.  Most of the companies claim that they need to drive productivity by driving people back into the office.  However, there is no corroborating data on this, unless we include potentially fabricated data from the companies themselves.

But there is data that shows that Return to Office does NOT drive productivity and therefore financial gains for a company.  The University of Pittsburgh recently released a study of the various RTO mandates.  They specifically looked at the financial performance of the companies driving RTO and found that there was no improvement.  They state : “We provide evidence that RTO mandates hurt employee satisfaction but do not improve firm performance.”  The reality is that by harming employee satisfaction they harm productivity.

Now if we want to really dive into productivity improvements then we have to look at how companies measure productivity.  That is usually done through various KPIs that relate to individual job functions and then how that translates to departmental performance.

Outside sales, marketing and support most people have no idea what the KPIs are that are used to measure their individual work.  Companies are wary of sharing how they track employee performance, and yet the data is available in most of the systems that we use to run our businesses.  And these systems do not care if you are in the office or working remotely.

So if companies want to use productivity as a driver for Return to Office – be open and create open dashboards of performance – even if just at team level, and show how it compares against goals and past performance.  I guarantee that these companies will NOT do this.  

The principle of RTO is effectively so that a manager can walk past their team and see if they are working.  Welcome back to the 1950’s !


The next point that is raised is innovation.  Human interaction is an AMAZING thing.  People bounce ideas off each other, we brainstorm, someone says something and it triggers an idea for someone else.  There is no denying this effect.  But does that mean that during the lockdowns innovation stopped ?  I don’t think so.  In fact, the challenges that we faced actually DROVE innovation – “Necessity is the mother of invention”

So Return to Office ignores one of the key issues with the office approach to innovation – it only works with the small group in your office.  What about the other groups on the same floor, or different floors in your building, or different buildings on your campus, or other cities and countries.

One of the lessons that the pandemic taught us is that we can drive innovation differently to include a wider group of people.  I fully agree that the in-person experience fosters a higher level of innovation, but the real key is then how that is driven across a wider group.  Technology can help to drive innovation – not restrict it. It becomes more inclusive for a wider range of viewpoints and ideas.

Team Building and Development

Humans are social creatures – or at least most of us are !  We thrive on personal interactions and our work in teams is usually greater than the sum of the parts of the team.  A team with strong social bonds is a wonderful thing to see, with each team member able to rely on and get support from other members of the team.

It is a fact that building those bonds is much more efficient face to face.  This is one of the reasons that most on-boarding of new employees is done in-person.  People that were on-boarded during the pandemic generally showed lower engagement scores in surveys and often performed less effectively than those that were already onboard.  The same goes for developing those teams – we get better results when we pull teams together for training and enablement.

But then the question comes – does everything then need to be in-person, and the answer is clearly NO.  Even during lockdowns we saw some amazing teams operating at full speed, learning to adapt and meet the challenge.  They were able to rely on the bonds that had already been built.

The key lesson here is that teams do need to spend time together, in the same space, to get to know each other and build relationships.  But then, just like when you see an old friend again after many years, those relationships can stand the test of time and distance.

Client Engagement

Any human relationship needs a physical presence and client relationships are no different.  We need to ensure that we build a strong relationship with our champions and technical champions, our economic buyers and of course with our users.

But we also cannot ignore that many of our customers will operate remotely anyway.  I lost count of the number of meetings that I attended in person that ended up being switched to Zoom at the customer’s office as someone else in the company was working remotely.

The reality is that we need to be able to adapt to how the customer and their team operates.  Take the time to build a face to face relationship with the key people, and in fact – go out of your way to do so to ensure that you can make an impact.  But you need to recognise that there is a high likelihood of the situations that I have encountered with customer meetings.

What is Really Driving Return to Office?

What is really driving RTO ?  In my opinion – it is historic and backwards thinking and concerns around the level of investments made in office space.  The backwards thinking I have already discussed – the justification on productivity and innovation just isn’t there.  We have senior leaders that have regressed into thinking that they need managers watching over their teams to make sure that they are working.  Just like the 1950’s offices.

The irony of this is that the big tech companies are talking about and selling digital transformation solutions and how AI will change the world.  They sell software and hardware solutions and services to enable you to work from anywhere and be a creative collaborator…..    But then force their own people to work in an office.  

Hey tech companies – how about living the visions, values and brands that you claim to be able to deliver on ?

The investments in office space are an interesting issue.  We saw massive growth in the tech sector just prior to the pandemic as well as through it and many companies entered into a significant expansion of their office space to handle the growth, often at significant cost.

The impact of Covid-19 left much of this space like an empty wasteland.  These companies had a massive cost and nothing to show for it.  The fortunate companies were able to renegotiate lease agreements but many were not.  Therefore they need people in the offices – no matter what.  They could not afford to have expensive real estate just sitting there empty.  So whatever happened – they needed to mandate getting people into the offices.

The final point here is around who should be in the office.  As I mentioned, some people want to be in the office.  They might be local, they might want that clear differentiation between work and personal life or they might just want that more social and in-person aspect of the job.

For everyone else we should be looking at what their role actually needs.  Most of the Return to Office mandates are generalised in their nature – but that is absurd.  Office functions need to be reviewed role by role, dept by dept, possibly location by location.  But that is tough to do and so they take the easy option and just declare that everyone should be in the office.

The Cons of Return to Office 

While the struggle of adapting to working from home during the pandemic was a major issue for many, we DID manage to adapt.  As we started to see the world open up again we saw similar or higher productivity rates for most businesses with people working remotely.  But we had the huge benefit of not having to commute, which saved money and also significantly increased work-life ratios.

It also massively benefited people’s mental health and the ability for parents to be able to deal with family issues like getting access to childcare and getting children to and from school.  There was also the positive environmental impact of fewer vehicles on the roads thus creating fewer emissions.  The RTO mandates REMOVE all of these benefits.

But it gets worse.  Many companies have been mandating Return to Office but also closing some smaller offices, which forces huge commutes or forces people to have to relocate.  This specifically targets older, and therefore more expensive workers that will have roots in their communities, children at schools and relatives locally.  In my opinion, this is a thinly veiled ageism attack, often from companies that have already been involved in court battles around ageism.

But the crazy thing is that the opposite then is also true – forcing too many people into small and overcrowded offices – this is a direct ploy to get people to leave due to dissatisfaction with the role and inability to work effectively.

But the effects are also felt by young families.  Again, these long commutes mean that finding childcare provision is both very difficult and very expensive.  This often forces young parents to make some very difficult choices, especially women.

So let’s drill into that point. EY recently released a report that showed that “Female appointments to UK financial services boardrooms fell in 2023, amid growing demand for C-Suite experience”.  The rates fell from 50% in 2022 to 36% in 2023 – just as we started forcing people back into offices. Oh by the way – EY is one of the companies mandating a return to office.

The net impact for companies is that employee satisfaction drops, employee productivity drops and the shareholders do not get any additive value.  Why would you do this ?

My Take on Return to Office and the Conclusion

We need to remind ourselves of the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic.  The world of work was already changing prior to 2020, but the lockdowns rapidly accelerated the change.  We proved that, for most office roles, we CAN work remotely.

The biggest issue for me is that too many people see this as an either / or decision.  Why can’t we evaluate 1, 2 or 3 days in the office on an occasional basis?  The reality is that the social contact of an office has demonstrable benefits for relationships, teams and personal growth.  But remote working supports better mental health, at least equal productivity and a much better work-life ratio.

We need to do a much better job of figuring out the NEEDS of the role and the KPIs directly associated with it instead of some crazy generic Return to Office mandate.  We need to focus on the outcomes of our roles, not where they are delivered.

We already figured out how to innovate and brainstorm remotely. Why not add in some days in the office with specific time to address innovation ideas and then progress them in remote sessions.  Yes – that requires more planning, but isn’t that what managers are for ?  It would then pull in every mind that can add to an innovation discussion, not just that site within a 6 cube radius.

Figuring our collaboration is key, but we have some amazing technology solutions already.  Take the time to train people on how to use them effectively then just let them get on with it.  Use virtual meetings, virtual breakout rooms, virtual whiteboards and shared documents.

You can also build a shared virtual office environment.  Have a Zoom session, or whatever video system you use, that is setup in the break room or cafeteria or even in the main office.  Remote workers can be connected-in and feel that they are part of the office culture.  I have seen this work in real life and the feedback was amazing.

The winners in this debate will be the companies that are forward thinking and operate a hybrid environment.  They will take the best of both worlds and make it work for them.  They will also win in that they will attract the best and brightest talent, retain them and make them highly effective.

And my final comment for you to consider.  If these major companies think that they can only work effectively if their people are in the office, what will they do when the next pandemic hits ?  I would certainly not trust them with my business, my money or any investment.  

I want to invest in the future, not 1950’s thinking !

Video Links:

Link to the YouTube Episode : http://YouTube Episode :


Blog Links:

Should You Change Your Job ? :

Develop Yourself and Your Career :

Top Content


FREE SE Masterclass

Share the Post:

Related Content

Should You Respond to an RFP?

Should You Respond to an RFP? Most companies will receive Request for Proposals (RFPs), but most do not ask the question “Should you respond to an RFP?”   RFPs can

Read More

The Return to Office Debate

The Return to Office Debate is getting UGLY. Many of the big tech companies as well as other global organisations are backtracking on their commitments to support remote working yet

Read More
Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner