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Is the 'work from home' age coming to an end?

'Return to office' trend is initiated by major American tech companies such as Google, Meta, Amazon and even Zoom

Published: Sep 13, 2023 11:19:04 AM IST
Updated: Sep 13, 2023 11:29:36 AM IST

Managers and business leaders are increasingly skeptical about the real benefits of working from home.
Image: Shutterstock Managers and business leaders are increasingly skeptical about the real benefits of working from home. Image: Shutterstock

Employees have become accustomed to working from home as a result of the pandemic and the rise of remote working. But a growing number of companies are now opting to get people working face-to-face again, encouraging their teams to return to offices on a regular basis. This is a global phenomenon, although there are regional disparities.

This trend is known as RTO, for "return to office." It was initiated by major American tech companies such as Google, Meta, Amazon and even Zoom. The San José-based company announced in August that it was requiring its employees to return to work on site at least two days a week, even though the videoconferencing service its known for contributed largely to the advent of widespread remote working. But this forced return to "normal" goes beyond the high-tech sector. Companies in many fields are now asking their employees to come into the office more often.

This change in attitude reflects a growing skepticism about working from home. While it is widely acclaimed by employees for the flexibility it affords, it is much less so by managers and company directors. The latter are increasingly cautious about the real benefits of working from home. For good reason: a study conducted in India by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California (UCLA) found that full-time remote work led to an 18% reduction in productivity among employees who benefited from it. Bringing your office home is not without its challenges, it seems, especially considering all the potential sources of distraction in our homes.

As a result, some companies are wondering whether they should simply put an end to full-time remote working. But this U-turn isn't going down well with employees, especially those living in countries where the work-from-home culture is widespread. This is the case in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Canadian employees benefit, on average, from 1.7 days of home working per week, according to research from the ifo Institute and EconPol Europe, based on a sample of 42,400 respondents in 34 industrialized countries. Their British and American counterparts work from home almost a day and a half a week, compared with 1.3 and 1 for those in Australia and New Zealand.

Also read: Women prefer working remotely, even if it means turning down a dream job

A carrot and stick approach

Against this backdrop, it is only to be expected that workers in these countries might refuse to give up their "WFH" privileges—even if it means looking for a new job. Some 64% of British employees say they'd rather quit than go back to the office every day, according to a survey of 2,000 workers conducted by British Business Expert and reported by startups.co.uk.

This has led companies like Disney and Amazon to impose compulsory days of on-site presence. Others are taking a gentler approach, encouraging employees to return to the office with bonuses and benefits. Perkbox, for example, offers rewards in the form of points to employees who come into the office: they can use them to buy lunch or even subscribe to Netflix, reports the BBC. For its part, software company Salesforce pledged to donate $10 to charity each time an employee came to work on-site during a two-week period in June. Meanwhile, JM Smucker took a different approach by creating a system of designated core weeks, during which employees are required to be on-site; according to the Wall Street Journal.

Such approaches are much less common in countries where working from home is less widespread, such as Japan and South Korea. With only 0.5 and 0.4 days of remote work per week, the two Asian nations fall below the global average established by the ifo Institute and EconPol Europe (0.9 days). Like American tech giants, many local companies impose days of in-person presence on their employees. But these back-to-office orders don't go down well at a time when workers are placing growing importance on establishing a better work-life balance -- no matter where they are in the world.