Partner Sites

Logo BusinessBecause - The business school voice
mobile search icon

Should Business Leaders Force Employees Back To The Office?

The likes of Amazon and EY have enforced return to office strategies, while a majority of executives predict a return to the five-day week. So, should leaders force employees back to the office?

Wed Apr 10 2024

‘Back to the office’ conversations are hardly new. Ever since the pandemic forced an almost all-encompassing shift to remote work, thought leaders, academics, and executives alike have debated the merits of at-home versus in-office work. 

More than four years since that shift began the conversation rages on. But while it has at times looked as though a return to the pre-pandemic norm of five days in the office was impossible, that no longer appears to be the case. 

A number of high profile, cross-industry employers have mandated five days in the office, including the likes of JP Morgan Chase, Boeing, and UPS. Elsewhere, there’s been an increasing move towards companies forcing employees back to the office for a significant portion of the week. 

Google recently cracked down on attendance by tracking office badge sign ins and including attendance in performance reviews. Likewise, Amazon empowered managers to sack staff who refused to return for at least three days per week. 

Further evidence that this could be the start of a wider trend: a recent survey of more than 1,300 top global executives by big four accounting and professional services firm KPMG found 64% of CEOs predicting a return to full-time office-based work by 2026. 

So, why has this shift occurred? What has happened to the much-lauded work-life balance offered by flexible working formats? And what impact could enforced ‘back to the office’ strategies have on the workforce? 


The case for office attendance

Both remote and physical work have their merits. 

Allowing employees to work from home for at least some of the week often yields higher satisfaction and can even improve productivity at times, allowing staff space to focus on tasks without distraction. 

Likewise, in-office days can prevent staff from feeling isolated, giving them a chance to form deeper connections and reinforcing company culture. Creativity and innovation is also typically more easily achieved within physical settings. 

This explains why by the end of 2022 close to three quarters of employers had shifted to a hybrid work format. However, it increasingly seems that executives are deciding the cons outweigh the pros. 

For Homa Bahrami, senior lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business and expert in organizational management, this is partly driven by a pervading lack of trust in the workforce, which only grows when staff are in the office with each other less frequently. 

“Trust building is a really critical part of the face to face in-office interaction,” she explains. 

Stories of remote employees doing less work or even working two jobs—credit reporting agency Equifax notably sacked 24 staff members after discovering they had multiple occupations—exacerbate this fear among executives. 

“Leaders are saying: ‘Unless you’re in the office, I don’t know if you’re doing work for us or if you’re doing something else, or only working two hours per day’,” she adds. “It’s a question of control and accountability.” 

Mandated office days therefore rebuild trust throughout a company, providing CEOs with peace of mind that all their employees are working toward the same goal. 


Why one size doesn’t fit all 

Of course, not every employee who works from home is spending their afternoons with their feet up watching Netflix, or fielding calls from their privately contracted clients. There are very real groups of people for whom working from home has become integral to their daily lives. 

“If you are a working mother, if you are disabled, if you are an underrepresented minority, you may feel much more comfortable being remote,” explains Homa. 

Working mothers, for example, may find that flexibility allows space to save on childcare and avoid wasting important time commuting to and from work. It can also mean greater opportunities for career progression with working full-time a more manageable proposition. 

Location also has an impact. Commuters who work in cities with strong public transport links may not be put off by the thought of being forced to travel to and from the office, however it’s a different story for those who have to sit in rush hour traffic twice each day. 

On the other hand, there are groups of workers for whom working in the office makes for a significantly improved quality of life. Gen Z workers, who are sharing rented accommodation with multiple people and working out of their bedrooms, for example, may welcome the chance to leave the house and socialize. 

“One of the biggest challenges is that one size doesn’t fit all,” Homa explains. “Leaders have to be very thoughtful about the risks they are running.” 

These risks are not limited to employee satisfaction and workplace culture, according to Anat Lechner, clinical professor of management and organizations at NYU Stern School of Business. As well as being a logistically complex step to take, companies that enforce a back to the office strategy also risk affecting productivity. 

“Transitioning back to the office is likely to require some adapting, which might be accompanied by a temporary drop in productivity," she explains. “[Some employees] may find the transition challenging, especially if they have developed efficient remote working dynamics that are now being dismantled.” 

Moving forward, while a majority of executives may be planning to bring employees back to the office in the near future, many may find that enforced attendance isn’t a step that benefits their workforce. 


Is there a correct approach? 

For CEOs who feel that an enforced return to the office is a necessary step for the future of the business, there are—as with all executive-level decisions—a variety of ways to take this step. 

Those who avoid making this seem like a punishment are most likely to succeed, while those who do risk alienating and losing employees, thinks Sankalp Chaturvedi, professor of organizational behavior and leadership at Imperial College Business School. 

“You have to nurture an environment where people are motivated to come. If they feel that they are being pushed, and others in the market are not doing that, then you’re making someone else’s proposition look better,” he explains. “You have to make a case for the change.” 

Studies show that Gen Z—who each year become a more prominent part of the workforce—are more discerning than previous generations when it comes to employers, indicating they are more likely to leave or avoid a company if it doesn’t align with their values. 

“From a company’s point of view, it’s in their favor to create a value proposition that makes them attractive. They don’t want to be known for punishing statements,” Sankalp adds. 

Long term, an approach that considers the human impact of enforced attendance would therefore seem more likely to be beneficial for companies. However, with industry-leading firms already reverting to five days in the office this suggests that is unlikely to be the case throughout. 

Instead, we are likely to enter an environment where different working models become another factor for professionals to consider when planning their next career moves, thinks Homa. 

“I don’t see us going back to five days a week across the board,” she says. “I think you will see some companies that say: ‘Look, our company culture and our management ideology really need you to be in the office—that's what we believe in, and if you don't like it don't choose us’.”

In turn, companies who believe in a more flexible approach will offer the option to work remotely and therefore be more attractive to those for whom this is a priority. 

A spectrum of approaches—with digital native, remote-only organizations at one end and more traditional in-office employers at the other—would ensure that just as job seekers evaluate the earning potential a company provides and the expected hours it demands, so too would they consider its approach to the working week. 

Is there a correct approach? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean business leaders forcing their employees back to the office has to mean misery for the many who have welcomed the flexibility that hybrid and remote working provides.