Welcome to Workplace Bytes, your monthly rundown of news, trends and data from the world of workplace management.
This month, Bytes is all about putting the term “return to office” to bed. It’s over, friends. Hybrid is here to stay and so is your current occupancy & utilization rate (despite some shrill responses from c-suite leaders).
We also meet ‘Mr Hybrid’ — the stereotypical hybrid office worker — and explore creative ways cities could transform some of the office space which 62% of companies have vacated. Vertical farms and rooftop infinity pools anyone?
RTO: Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt
While press articles about the “return-to-office” continue to stream from top business and consumer pubs, the reality for most workplace leaders is that “RTO” is over. The real challenges – boosting workplace policy compliance and growing workplace engagement – are now underway.
CNBC reported that US Labor Day (first Monday in September) has long been used as a marquee date in the progression of RTO in the US. Until 2023, there were big jumps in attendance each successive Labor Day. But in 2023, the gains were small:
As we have reported in our recent WUI report, the article stated that office utilization is running at about half of pre-pandemic levels and that companies are now focusing on boosting attendance in their hybrid office scenarios.
CNBC reports that 90% of companies will have returned by end of year, but that expectations of a 5-day return are unrealistic.
CNN reported on a Gartner online survey of HR leaders that had the following to say about encouraging people to come to the office more often.
Forty-five percent of respondents said they “ask” employees to come to the office “only a few days a week.” Only 21% of [respondents] said they are mandating RTO policies. Nearly 40% said they “do not have consequences for not meeting attendance requirements or recommendations.”
And among the HR executives who said their companies are trying to enforce compliance, 44% said managers “meet with individuals to strongly encourage behavior change.” Only 15% said they put noncompliant employees on performance improvement plans, while 8% lower performance reviews and 7% reduce bonuses.
It appears that lots of companies are still trying to crack the nut of greater compliance and desirability of in-office work.
Finally, a story in Boston.com (Boston Globe) stated, “…employers say this could be as returned as it gets.”
Hybrid work is officially ‘the norm’ with 70% of workers working from home at least 1 day per week
Time reported that the percentage of full-time information workers back in the office decreased between Q1 and Q2.
Hybrid is increasingly where people are at.
Gallup just published a study of “remote-capable” workers showing that 41% of employees were working hybrid schedules of two or three days in office in Q2 2023, up 21% versus the prior year. 29% report working from home full-time, down 10%. 30% report four or five days in office, down 14%.
The survey also showed that 5 in 10 hybrid workers must work on-site, while 3 in 10 have complete autonomy over the number and timing of in-office days. 1 in 10 are encouraged but not required to spend some time in the office.
Gallup also found that “hybrid workers are most engaged when their team works together to determine their hybrid schedules. Unfortunately, we also find that this is the least common approach to designing hybrid work schedules, with only 12% of hybrid employees saying their team uses a collaborative decision-making process.”
According to the research, the most critical determinant of success is flexibility in setting hybrid work rules. “What we know for certain is that leaders should be studying how remote flexibility impacts employee and team performance in their own organization so they can adjust accordingly.”
C-suite resistance to hybrid persists but workers have dug in heels
Several articles this month showed that senior executives continue to have unrealistic expectations about how often they can expect workers in the office in the future. This KPMG CEO survey reported that 64% expect people in roles that were traditionally based in the office to be back in the office full-time over the next three years. Just 34% envision that these roles will be hybrid. Most are aware, however, that it will take some doing to get people to return full-time. 90% report that they will reward in-office people with favorable assignments, raises, or promotions.
Citing the same research, this Forbes Oped by Andrew Mawson of UK-based workplace consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates said, “Many leaders believe productivity is down, but did they measure it before the pandemic and how are they measuring it now? Studies suggest productivity has actually gone up since the pandemic, with one survey by Airtasker finding 85% of American workers feel more productive at home.” Whichever is true, it’s clear that workers and managers are singing from different hymnals.
One key source of misunderstanding, according to this article on Yahoo News titled
Workers have a $1.4T message for employers…”, is that what workers want for spending more time in the office is financial support for commuting costs, child care, and meals. The piece cites research from Owl Labs that shows “[t]he perks they’re after aren’t wellness rooms or ping-pong tables. What they really want is to save money. Nearly two in five (38%) hybrid workers told Owl Labs they’d be more likely to go to their office voluntarily if their companies shelled out for their commuting costs. That’s the most desired perk by a wide margin…” What years working from home did, it seems, was change worker perceptions about what it should “cost” to work from a company office.
Many business leaders were confident earlier in the year that a tough economy would quash resistance to in-office time. But the tug of war between employees and their bosses continues. From a September article in SHRM:
Analysis by the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI), out earlier this month, found that almost half (47 percent) of employees indicate they would quit a job or begin looking for a new job immediately if their employer mandated a full-time return-to-office policy.
IBI’s finding is not an outlier—other research has issued similar findings—but it is significant that this far into the tug-of-war between employees and employers, there’s still substantial employee resistance to returning to offices.
According to IBI, 22.5 percent of U.S. employers with remote-capable employees want their employees back in the office full-time, while only 15.1 percent of remote-capable employees expressed a desire to return to the office full-time.
Hope (and mandates) are not a strategy
There’s growing evidence that in-office initiatives that emphasize stick-only measures instead of a mixture of carrot and stick don’t work well. IGN reported that game studio Ubisoft’s RTO mandate put its Montreal office in turmoil. Insider sources said 270+ comments hit their Intranet after the announcement, almost all negative.
The NY Times article reported how Tiktok’s US leadership required workers to use a location tracking app, MyRTO, to enforce their policy. A dashboard showing employee locations helps the company and managers track compliance. The app deployment was accompanied by a company statement: “TikTok requires many of its roughly 7,000 U.S. employees to work in offices three times a week beginning in October. Some teams are expected in five days a week.” Employees were told that “deliberate and consistent disregard may result in disciplinary action” and could “impact performance reviews.” Many employees were not amused.
This article from HRDive reported that engagement strategies make a big difference in encouraging returned workers to spend more time in the office – and be happy about it. The article cited the value of facilities like lactation rooms, inviting break spaces, “focus” rooms, and soft seating.
Newsweek stated that more companies are making hybrid work by seeing “the office not so much as a place for individuals to get work done as a hub of interaction.” This thoughtful piece is worth a click.
Could the “urban doom loop” be coming to a city near you?
In this Washington Post podcast, Rachel Seigel takes us on an economic journey through the “urban doom loop” and explores this threat to midsize cities if reduced demand for office spaces persists.
Then, Teo Armus explores creative ways cities could transform vacant office space. Vertical farms, spas and rooftop infinity pools?
25 Big reasons to get your act together on workplace analytics
Are you looking to revolutionize your workplace management and maximize your ROI on office spaces? Look no further than our ultimate guide on use cases for occupancy sensors.
In this guide, we explore some of the most popular use cases in workplace analytics for real estate teams. Each listing provides rationale, step-by-step how-tos, and information about how to get the best results.
The incredible shrinking workplace
CBRE published some thought-provoking data on how workplaces are getting smaller – as hybrid reduces demand for resources on some days and 1:1 desk-to-employee ratios become increasingly obsolete. Their 2023 Global Workplace & Occupancy Management Benchmarking Program says 62% of offices have grown smaller since before the pandemic.
Their data show that this shrinking has helped improve office occupancy, though office utilization remains below 40%.
Many other sources said that companies are downsizing to shed disused workspace. Earlier this summer, Bloomberg reported on Knight Frank survey research showing half of large companies were reducing office footprints.
Sometimes, the scale of these moves can be shocking. Fortune reported that Meta is paying $181 million to give back office space it can’t fill.
The lighter side: Meet the typical hybrid worker, a millennial dude on 6 figures
So, who is the typical hybrid worker? This factoid-rich post from Business Insider reviewed data from various sources to create a caricature of the hybrid worker. Hybrid workers are more likely to fall into the millennial ‘internet dude’ stereotype: male, highly educated, upper-income, working in Information Technology and highly unlikely to be in the office on a Friday. Don’t let the light-hearted tone put you off – a ton of good data is collected here.
From the piece: “Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes indicated nearly 57% of surveyed workers earning over $150,000 were hybrid workers, compared with just 13.2% of those surveyed who were earning $10,000 to $20,000 — which was nearly the same for those earning $20,000 to $50,000.” And just as data from our recent Workplace Utilization Index reported, it’s rare to see a hybrid worker in the office on Monday or Friday.