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Can America Really ‘Return to the Office’? And, Even if We Could, Should We?

Studies show that remote work might actually increase productivity across industries. But, good luck convincing your boss of that.

Jeff Rundles //May 16, 2024//

Reopening and back to office after covid-19 concept. Human resources worker helps employee with return to office workspace.
Reopening and back to office after covid-19 concept. Human resources worker helps employee with return to office workspace.

Can America Really ‘Return to the Office’? And, Even if We Could, Should We?

Studies show that remote work might actually increase productivity across industries. But, good luck convincing your boss of that.

Jeff Rundles //May 16, 2024//

Someone asked me recently if I exercised regularly — which I do — but it turned out to be a way of proselytizing for running as an exercise.

“The only thing about me that runs is my nose,” I replied.

I don’t suppose that this is what is meant by a running gag, but it worked — he moved on to someone else for a running buddy.

The incident got me thinking about running and, in spite of my nose, I recently had an epiphany that I have been running ahead of a significant curve for many years without really noticing it: working from home.

I have been, more or less, working from home for the past 12 years or so, and for many years I was about the only person I knew not going into an office or other workplace and interacting directly with colleagues.

READ: Adapting to the New Norm – Post-Pandemic Work Culture and the Future of Remote Work

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that and made work-at-home into a standard, so much so that it has taken on its own acronym —WFH — that elevates the status of the practice; indeed, WFH is now a key search term for people seeking employment or a new position.

The problem is that with the ending of pandemic restrictions, WFH is running headlong into another acronym — RTO, Return to the Office — in a now-significant clash. Workers grew to love WFH, while companies have a significant investment in office space and infrastructure, and RTO addresses that investment.

I have several friends in the midst of this clash, as they have been asked — no, required — to return to the office for, say, a week a month, or two days a week, and it is not going down well.

What I have heard anecdotally is that they are experiencing no significant benefit from returning to the office: that face-to-face time with co-workers is not it’s all cracked up to be and that productivity actually suffers. In some cases workers relocated their residences during the pandemic so RTO requirements have created additional costs and commuting/lodging hassles.

READ: Guest Column CEO of Atlas Real Estate Asks ‘Is Working Remote Worth the Missed Opportunity?’

The truth is that before the pandemic WFH constituted barely 5% of American workers, and during the pandemic it went as high as 65%, according to many studies. But now post-pandemic, as many as 15% of workers do so fully remote, and another 28% are working in a hybrid model that involves at least some RTO time. But as many as 90% of workers whose work could be done WFH want to head in that direction, and they may get their wish.

I read several studies about both WFH and RTO, and the bottom line is that productivity in WFH environments hasn’t subsided from pre-pandemic work-in-the-office levels, and may in fact be somewhat better. And, studies have also discovered that once all of the excessive office space holdings work themselves out, companies in many industries could save as much as $11,000 per remote employee per year by embracing WFH.

This is on top of the savings the WFH employees themselves are experiencing in lower commuting expenses, parking costs and wardrobe investments, not to mention some savings benefits in child care.

To me, that signifies that RTO is doomed.

Increased employee morale. Increased employee productivity. Reduced company expenses. Add them up and it’s clear that ultimately all signs point to a full embrace of WFH for many American workers.

This doesn’t, of course, address some of the negatives, particularly in commercial real estate and the impact it has on the surrounding areas. With fewer workers in office buildings, there is much less traffic to surrounding businesses like stores and restaurants, and these effects are already being felt in downtowns like Denver and commercial areas adjacent to suburban office parks.

And, of course, commercial leasing and construction in the commercial sector is going to take a significant hit — perhaps for years to come.

READ: From Boardrooms to Bedrooms — How Denver is Turning Vacant Office Towers into Residential Properties Post-Pandemic

But to me the benefits of WFH in the long run outweigh the negatives of RTO. People are deciding that they prefer to live in Vail, or Harbor Springs or Syracuse rather than Denver, Detroit or Seattle, and with WFH they can go where they like. The flexibility in WFH is a game changer.

Time is running out on one of the grand traditions of working in America, in-office jobs. And it may be a home run – a Work From Home Run – for millions of workers – and the companies they work for.

 

Jeff Rundles HEADSHOTJeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at [email protected].

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