It's Time To Re-Think Return to Office Mandates: Remote Work is Here to Stay
For over two years during the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of office workers made the transition to working effectively from home. With the rapid shift to remote work, many companies discovered that their employees could be just as, if not more, productive working remotely. However, as pandemic restrictions have eased, many businesses are now pushing for a mandatory return to the office—even for those who have proven they can excel while working remotely. But do these return-to-office mandates actually make business sense, or are they more about corporations exerting control over where and how employees work?
As a senior software engineer who has worked remotely full-time since before the start of the pandemic, I have seen firsthand how productive remote work can be. Throughout my 18-year career with my company, I have consistently received top performance reviews while gradually shifting to a fully remote schedule between 2016 to 2018. While working from home, my productivity has only increased as I am better able to focus without distractions and optimize my schedule. I am able to start early and work flexible hours to be available for my global colleagues, while also devoting more energy to innovative problem-solving.
Yet this year, my company announced that all employees would be required to return to the office or risk termination. This mandate disregards over two years of proof that remote work is viable and in many cases superior. It also goes back on Flexible Work Arrangements that allowed my transition to fully remote years earlier. I am far from alone in facing this conundrum—millions of knowledge workers like myself are seeing the freedom and benefits of remote work that they earned ripped away.
Proponents of return-to-office policies often cite collaboration, productivity, and problem-solving as necessitating an in-person work environment. However, research increasingly shows this is an overgeneralization. While certain job functions may benefit from face-to-face time like management, customer service, or jobs requiring specialized equipment, knowledge roles have readily adapted to remote collaboration tools.
One study from the University of Chicago found remote and onsite workers collaborated equally using video conferencing. In fact, the flexible schedules of remote work may even boost productivity for some. Workers free from commutes can devote that time to focused work or rest, improving mental acuity and health. Problem-solving is also not necessarily better in-person; individual focus time removed from distractions allows for deeper immersion in challenges. Furthermore remote work has done more to reduce the impact on Climate Change over the past 3 years than any other initiative to date with several cities seeing a measurable reduction in smog, litter and other effects caused by daily commutes.
A rational decision on where work happens best should be made individually based on job duties and employee needs—not one-size-fits-all mandates. Though some claim work-from-home leads to distractions, the reality is distractions simply take different forms depending on the environment. At home, a deadline may align better with a school pickup. In the office, it could mean cramming work into downtime from a fire drill. Overall distraction level depends more on self-discipline wherever one is situated.
Blanket return-to-office policies also disproportionately impact those who most benefited from pandemic remote work arrangements like working parents, people with disabilities or health risks, as well as lower-wage employees. Parents especially appreciated regaining time freed up from lengthy commutes and costs of childcare, a small offset to stagnant overall pay. Now they face being forced to return to pre-pandemic stresses or lose their jobs. Beyond costs of working in-person, the main barrier is inadequate flexibility in work arrangements.
There is also little consideration given in return-to-office policies to the huge added expenses of commuting that particularly burden lower-paid workers. With fuel prices soaring due to inflation, busy public transit increasing contagion risk, and many relocating based on new remote work opportunities, the costs can easily cancel out any nominal pay bump. Yet “return or else” ultimatums leave no room for discussing accommodations. What companies lose sight of is that their most valuable assets are knowledgeable employees who have sustained operations through crisis. Threatening jobs over a single policy ignores valuing individual contributions.
In reality, the strongest factor nudging companies towards a return-to-office may simply be large investment in physical office real estate. According to some analyses, commercial landlords could lose billions with widespread long-term remote work slashing traditional office footprints. But any decision with such far-reaching consequences for quality of life should involve long-term thinking and flexibility—not be reduced to quarterly profit motives. While some in-person time may aid specific roles, a one-size-fits-all policy ignores necessary nuance.
Overall, the past two and a half years have shown that successful collaboration and productivity are compatible with remote work for many roles and individual needs. Rather than mandatory return-to-office ultimatums, companies should thoughtfully determine job-specific requirements and offer customizable hybrid or remote arrangements, with in-person only where clearly necessary. Individuals’ job performance, not lobbies’ real estate interests, should be top priority for his new normal of flexible work. Remote revolutionaries like myself hope our accomplishments away from the traditional desk prompt reconsideration of rigid policies that threaten livelihoods and work-life balance.
In conclusion, returning to pre-pandemic work norms ignores the many lessons of the past two years. Remote and hybrid arrangements are here to stay for reasons of both business viability and worker well-being. A new era of results-oriented flexibility is needed, not dictated terms of where bodies must be located. For innovation economy jobs demonstrated to thrive unrestrained, remote work must remain an accepted option. Ultimately, companies will be shaped for success or failure by choosing personal empowerment over short-term pressures. The pandemic proved remote excellence—now it's time to make flexibility a permanent fixture of modern business.