Office Work in 2023: Are Communicators Ever Going Back for Good?

By Alan Shoebridge, Associate VP of National Communication, Providence Health & Services

Among communicators, there are a few subjects that can spark an instant debate. Whether or not to use an Oxford comma. Whether healthcare is one word or two words. And now calling into question the effectiveness of remote work versus being in the office. It wasn’t always this way.

Prior to the pandemic, where to work wasn’t really a question for most of us. Aside for the odd work from home day – most likely when we were sick or had a repair person coming over – our daily work took place in the office …end of discussion.

Starting in mid-2020, many communicators shifted to working remotely. Coming into the office was suddenly abnormal. Most of the time, there was no reason to come into the office given the risks of COVID.

Many of us are still working remotely or in some type of hybrid schedule even as the threat from COVID has greatly diminished. However, the tide is changing. We’re seeing frequent headlines about companies, especially in the tech space, mandating that employees come back to the office at least three days a week. Some are even back to requiring five days a week.

These mandates are often built on feelings, not data. This puts leaders and employees at odds. Before we get into why there is such a clash here, let’s look at the current remote/hybrid work landscape.

Exactly who is working remotely?

Most jobs are not remote or even hybrid, but communication-related roles are more adaptable. So much of our work can be done from anywhere.

According to a recent Forbes Advisor article, this is how the remote/hybrid landscape looked at the beginning of the year.

  • As of 2023, 12.7% of full-time employees work from home, while 28.2% work in a hybrid model.
  • The medical and health industry has also seen a shift towards remote work, primarily driven by the rise of telehealth services and the digitization of health records.

The article also provides some predictions about what the future holds, “Looking ahead, the future of remote work seems promising. According to Upwork, by 2025, an estimated 32.6 million Americans will be working remotely, which equates to about 22% of the workforce. This projection suggests a continuous, yet gradual, shift towards remote work arrangements … workers’ preference for remote work aligns with this trend. A staggering 98% of remote-capable workers expressed the desire to work remotely, at least part of the time. This overwhelming figure reflects the workforce’s growing affinity towards the flexibility, autonomy, and work-life balance that remote work offers.”

Clearly, employee desire for remote work isn’t going anywhere. But in the short term, will it be possible to meet in the middle with employers pushing to get people back in the office?

Exploring the disconnect between managers and employees

I don’t think it’s complicated. The disconnect between leaders and employees is happening because each side is dismissing concerns from the other.

Employees value the tangible benefits of working from home like less or no commuting, which allows them to be more productive, even get in more work, and spend time with children, partners, and parents. Flexibility rules.

And they feel strongly about keeping that flexibility. A Robert Half survey of more than 2,500 U.S. workers and 2,100 hiring managers in November of 2022 found that roughly three-quarters of workers said they are happier and more productive when they’re working from home despite sometimes having to work longer hours. Nearly one-third of workers who go into the office at least one day a week are willing to take a pay cut for the ability to do their job remotely all the time. When asked by how much, the average response was 18%!

On the other hand, managers tend to value intangible things like the impromptu collaboration that happens in person. In addition, some managers simply feel that seeing someone working is the best way to gauge effectiveness.

It’s really a clash of values.

Here are some of the most common areas where this conflict is most pronounced:

  • Productivity: Employers worry about oversight, distractions, and overall output. Employees value flexibility and autonomy. Most employees believe their productivity at home to be equal or better than when working in the office.
  • Communication: Managers value face-to-face teamwork, innovation, and problem-solving. Employees believe digital tools facilitate collaboration just as effectively as being in person.
  • Trust: Employers fear decreased commitment and disconnection when they don’t see people every day. Employees appreciate they are trusted to work remotely and feel more engaged.
  • Work-life balance: Employees value flexibility for family time, stress reduction, and personalized work environments. Managers worry about burnout and blurred boundaries caused by never disconnecting when at home.
  • Building culture: Employers see offices as fostering deeper culture and relationships. Although it might require a bit more effort, employees contend that virtual alternatives can maintain connections.

Where do we go from here?

We’re stuck in the messy middle of figuring out the right way to balance what employees want while resolving legitimate reservations about how remote work impacts productivity and career growth.

Nobody has all the answers about the best balance between in-person and remote work. And there are some people who prefer to be in-person more than remote or who really do need an office environment for one reason or another.

Key takeaways

As a leader, don’t rush into any decisions about bringing everyone back to work. If you don’t have a good reason to do so or a plan to make the experience truly positive, you will damage your credibility with your team. Once you do that, it’s difficult to get it back. Tread carefully.

For employees, don’t brush away concerns your manager has about remote work. See if you can meet in the middle. Compromising on a hybrid schedule is much better than coming back every day.



June 2024