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Return To Office? The Pendulum Swings Too Far - As Usual!

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Many organizations have become much more focused on making everyone Return to Office (RtO) during 2023 around the globe. However, the expected increases in productivity seems illusive. 2024 will hopefully be the year when the pendulum moves into a position between the two extremes; full time Office based work vs full time Work from Home (WfM). Most organizations have a lot to gain by not clinging to an extreme for all of their employees, all of the time.


When the pandemic made governments across the globe mandating emergency remote work (full time WfM for everyone that didn’t absolutely have to be on location), the pendulum swung too far to one extreme. This was not optimum for everyone and not all organizations were ready for it, but not optional due to government edicts. Forcing everyone back into the office (RtO) means the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme. For most organizations, the optimum is to find a working mix of full-time office-based workers, hybrid workers that works some hours in the office and some hours from home and full-time remote workers that virtually never come in to an office except for rare and special occasions. Most organizations will benefit from having all three categories of employees, however the percentage between the categories may vary significantly. Individual employees may also move between the categories over time as their living situation changes and/or they get new roles in the organization.

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Figure 1: The pendulum swings from WfH to RtO bypassing hybrid work completely. The author generated the base image with DALL E-3, OpenAI’s image generation tool and then enhanced it.


The impact of societal changes post-pandemic

Just as the world was recovering from the worst stages of the pandemic, other geopolitical events started to destabilize the world. Here is a short list of major events in chronological order:

  • March 2020 – WHO declares Covid-19 a pandemic and country after country locks down and imposes social distancing, facial masks and work from home.
  • February 2022 – Russia invades Ukraine causing additional supply chain shortages, creating geopolitical instability resulting in higher energy cost in many countries, increasing interest rates and high inflation which all drives up the cost of living.
  • Mid 2022 – Travel restrictions and requirements to wear facial masks are being relaxed in many countries and the early mover organizations start demanding their employees to return to the office.
  • May 2023 – WHO declares the end of formal Covid-19 pandemic classification.
  • All of 2023 – Major tech companies are doing massive layoffs, frequently 7-10% of the workforce, in some instances even more than one layoff in the same year.

During the pandemic, many employees started to appreciate working from home which helped creating a better work-life balance during challenging times. At the same time, other employees that was experiencing more of a compact living situation found it difficult to combine work with children being home due to closed schools. During this time, the demand for larger living quarters catering for 1-2 home offices in addition to the usual family needs increased. Frequently, in order to find these larger homes at an affordable price, it meant moving further from the town centers (and likely further away from the office). The trend to move to more remote areas was further fueled by higher interest rates, higher cost of energy and food, in short higher cost of living during a time of inflation.

When a lot of tech companies started to lay off more or less simultaneously, and at the same time started to enforce RtO policies, many employees that had no desire at all to return to full time office work found themselves in a position of not having an option but instead forced into compliance with a disgruntled feeling.

The reasoning behind RtO and why it’s not meeting the mark 100%

Organizations mandating RtO usually cite one or more of the following reasons:

  • Improved productivity.
  • Building corporate culture and promoting in person meetings.
  • Fairness – if some employees are not able to WfH due to their roles, everybody should work from office full time.

Organizations that have the ability to objectively measure contribution of employees typically don’t find that productivity has improved after forcing everybody back into the office as was expected. Building corporate culture is definitely something that is best done as a focused effort on a kick-off or off-site, a focused event with an agenda. The day-to-day aspect is more about employees that are afraid that they’re left out of the information flow and less eligible to promotion unless they’re in the office. This is usually mitigated by formalizing information dissemination to team meetings and formalized objective ways to measure individual contribution. Life is not fair! If you sign up to a job description that requires 100% presence in the office, you can’t expect to WfH unless you change role in the organization. Just because some employees are required to do all their work on site/in office doesn’t mean that everybody else in the organization should be penalized.

The expected benefits from WfH and hybrid work

There are many perceived benefits from supporting full time WfH and/or hybrid work. Some of the most notable ones include:

  • Being able to recruit from a larger talent pool when it comes to scarce skills. Both individuals that don’t live within commute distance as well as individuals that have chosen to live remotely.
  • Being able to recruit at potentially lower salary levels compared to metro area salaries.
  • Not supporting remote work may “scare away” some talent that has become used to working remotely and find it hard to go back to doing all work in the office. This may become much more obvious when the skills shortage becomes more apparent after the current waves of layoffs.
  • Financial aspects – Office space is expensive, especially in metro areas. Reducing the office space to predominantly meeting and collaboration space is an attractive financial perspective.
  • Sustainability – Forcing employees to commute for the sake of a principle is not really sustainable. Nor is building more office space than really needed.

The “gotchas” of hybrid work

Hybrid work is a good common ground in many situations and for many employees in different stages of life. The problem is when hybrid work is arbitrarily mandated, e g stating that 2 days per week has to be performed in the office regardless if there is team activities, design or collaboration activities planned that would be best served by a physical presence. Office presence during hybrid work needs to be aligned to activities that require presence, not by an arbitrary number of days per week. The biggest risk with an arbitrary mandate is:

  • Employees that commute in, have coffee in the corporate cafeteria and loiter around a bit (typically reducing the productivity of other colleagues) before commuting back to the home office, just to meet the mandate of having been to the office that day. From a productivity and sustainability perspective it would have been way better for the employee to stay in the home office that day.


Most organizations benefit from having all three categories of employees (full time office worker, hybrid worker and fulltime WfH) in a mix. The percentage between the categories needs to make sense to the organization over time and allowing individual employees to move between the categories as their living situation changes and/or they get new roles in the organization. In order to be successful in supporting the mix over time, organizations need to:

Be able to objectively measure contribution of employees without physically seeing them.

  • Invest in modern management and better help desk tools to more effectively support full time remote work and devices that never come into the office (as well as hybrid work devices that rarely come into the office).
  • Continue to invest in modern collaboration tools that enables remote participants to have a more engaging and complete experience reducing the gap between being physically present and contributing remotely.
  • Ensure information is disbursed uniformly to all members of the team regardless of what category they belong to. This is usually a non-issue if also the manager works remotely.

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Leif-Olof Wallin is an independent Tech Advisor that specializes in Enterprise Mobility, Remote Work, Frontline Workers, Private Mobile Networks and IoT.

Formerly, he was one of the Gartner analysts that published Gartner research around Remote Work and policies to support it. Mr Wallin has more than 2 decades of experience of being a full-time remote worker in a global, US headquartered, organization. LinkedIn:

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Pendulum image was generated in Dall-E and subsequently modified.