Employers Raise the Stakes to Get Employees Back in Office

Pictured: Map with yellow pinpoint location and money in the background/Iryna/ Adobe Stock

Pictured: Map with yellow pinpoint location and money in the background/Iryna/Adobe Stock

Despite data showing that remote work remains a priority to employees across the U.S., many employers are pushing to get staff back into the office. And according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, some employers have decided to further incentivize in-person work.

Citing data from LinkedIn and ZipRecruiter, WSJ reported that relocation packages have risen significantly both in size and frequency compared to this time last year. This extra push for staff to return to the office could be due to “productivity paranoia.”

The phrase, coined by Microsoft in a September 2022 Work Trend Index Special Report, occurs when “leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings and other activity metrics have increased.”

Jeanne Meister, executive vice president of Executive Networks, a peer community for HR leaders, told BioSpace that though she considers this an “old-school way of thinking,” it’s more common than one might think.

“Employers, especially in an uncertain economic environment, are concerned about the impact of people not being in the office,” Meister said. “If you don’t have face-time, does that mean you ’re not working?”

In the same report, 85% of leaders surveyed agreed that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive. Hybrid managers were also more likely to report struggling to trust their employees to do their best work than in-person managers were.

Mixed results about where workers are most productive may be partially to blame. Some reports point to increased productivity from remote staff, while others suggest that in-office workers are able to get more done. And a November 2022 analysis by Gallup found that workers with the highest levels of employee engagement were neither fully remote nor on-site, but somewhere in the middle.

“For highly collaborative work, being on-site three days [per week] is optimal for employee engagement,” the authors wrote.

An Industry-Wide Shift

Scott Rivers, president and managing partner of life sciences executive search firm Cerca Talent, told BioSpace he’s seeing more and more life science employers emphasize the importance of working on-site.

For many employers, he said, the desire to work in person alongside their staff isn’t only due to the company’s bottom line.

“They want employees to have time in the office because they believe it leads to a better culture. It leads to better productivity. It leads to better oversight,” Rivers said.

As someone in a leadership position, Rivers said he can relate. Though the locations of his employees would make an in-office mandate impossible, he said he sees the appeal.

“I’d love to have everyone in one facility, under one roof,” he said. “It makes building the culture so much easier. When you get that pulse of working on a great team, it’s palpable. It’s energizing. . . . It’s a lot more difficult doing that remotely.”

Whatever the motivation, employers who want staff to come back to the office have to make it worthwhile for employees. In the Work Trend Index report from Microsoft, 73% of employees said they need a better reason to go into the office than just company expectations.

Rivers said he’s seen this shift in employee expectations firsthand.

"Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to move up in an organization and grow your career, you would have to go in-house and be willing to move . . . and people were willing to do it,” he said. “Fewer people are willing to make those moves today than ever in the past.”

Making the Office Worth the Commute

This could, at least in part, explain the extra incentive in the form of generous relocation packages. Companies are also making efforts to draw employees into the office once they’re living nearby.

One way to do this, said Meister, is to be flexible about schedules.

“Give the frontline managers the autonomy to decide how to manage their teams,” she said. For example, rather than having all in-office workers come in at the same times every week, let managers decide the best schedules for their teams.

“It can’t be fixed or mandated,” Meister said. “It has to be fluid and take into account job roles.”

Another step employers can take to incentivize workers to come in, Meister said, is to make the space worth the commute. This could take the form of small initiatives like stocking food, drinks and office supplies for staff to use or larger efforts like renovating the office space.

“Nobody wants to go through the expense and time of a commute only to find that you’re commuting to a ghost town where there aren’t many people there,” Meister said. “Companies have to make a commitment to make the office more intentional and what I call ‘commute worthy.’”

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