The Great Remote Work Debate

Return to office mandates are growing, but workers are hesitant to give up flexibility.

COVID-19 completely transformed the way we work. During the early phase of the pandemic, firms and workers were forced to remain distant from one another. A hybrid model then emerged as public health normalized. Remote work has evolved from a survival tool to a normal part of the professional experience. But in many locations, the balance of time spent at home and in the office is still in flux.

As economies slow, employers are starting to regain their negotiating power with workers. Corporate return to office mandates are growing. Yet workers are hesitant to give up flexibility. According to a survey by WFH Research, employees around the world would like to work from home on average two days per week, a full day more than their employers are willing to offer. This gap is the largest in emerging economies like Brazil, Mexico and China and the smallest in developed markets like the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

Big tech firms, which enabled so much remote activity, are now calling their employees back to the office on set schedules. A large social media company wants its employees back for at least three days of a week in the workplace. The largest search engine company’s return to office directive includes tracking attendance, which will be included as a factor in performance reviews. Some organizations are even beginning to make remote work a thing of the past. Five-day weeks are back for good at some of the biggest American banks; however, many aren’t still showing up.

Employees and management generally agree that some time spent in the office is beneficial. According to WFH Research, 56% of workers would like a flexible arrangement and only a minority want to work entirely at home or in the office. A Pew Research Center survey of American workers with location flexibility found that only about one-third choose to work remotely full-time. Even in countries like Japan, where remote work has been less common, employees are seeking to spend more than a quarter of the week at home.

The most important reported benefit of a hybrid workplace policy is the time and money saved on commuting to the office. On average, workers around the world save 72 minutes a day staying home, which translates to two weeks in a year. In densely populated countries like India, workers spend about seven percent of their day commuting to their offices. Other advantages include better work-life balance and increased flexibility to work from locations that may be more convenient for employees. As a result, workers are reporting less stress and higher productivity.