The return to office Saga: Is remote work dead or just evolving?
May 13, 2024
min read

The return to office Saga: Is remote work dead or just evolving?

Eli McGarvie
Eli McGarvie

Remember when it seemed like remote work was here to stay? The pandemic flipped the script, especially in tech. We all got used to Zoom meetings, comfy pants, and seeing our pets and kids during the workday. Sometimes better 

But lately... things feel weird. Big tech companies who were shouting "remote forever!" from the rooftops are suddenly backpedalling. "Hybrid", "flexible", and the dreaded "office-centric" are now the buzzwords.

So, what the heck is going on? Are companies clueless? Is remote work truly dead?

Let's break down this return-to-office madness and figure out what it means for the future of work, as well as what companies should do to get the top talent interested in working for their businesses again.

The Push for Return to Office

A tech employee working passively in the office after a strict RTO policy has been enforced

Okay, let's play devil's advocate for a moment. Why are companies so keen to get everyone back in the office? Here's the usual spiel:

  • "We Need that Creative Spark!": You often hear that hallway chats and in-person brainstorming lead to innovation that Zoom can't replicate. (Whether that's true is debatable...)
  • "But What About the Culture?": Some companies worry that remote work makes employees feel disconnected. They miss the team spirit, those office friendships that form over terrible break room coffee.
  • "Trust Issues (but Prettier)": Let's be honest, some managers are just old-school. They like seeing butts in seats and equate office presence with productivity.
  • The Layoff Connection? This is trickier to prove, but some suspect recent layoffs are a sneaky way to strong-arm people back. It's harder to demand folks return if they're already successful working remotely.

My take? There's some truth and some BS in here.

Some of these arguments have a tiny grain of truth. But mostly, they feel like excuses to ditch an arrangement that, frankly, has worked pretty darn well for lots of people and companies.

In the real world, statistics say it all;

  • Remote workers are 13% more productive, with overall US productivity up 5% since 2020. (source)
  • The people agree too. 32% of managers agree that productivity has increased during the remote work shift, with 94% of employees reporting their productivity is the same or higher since working remotely.
  • The mood is better, too. 75% of remote workers state a better work-life balance and 62% state that remote work has benefitted their engagement with their work.
  • What's more, companies save more with remote employees, with reduced commuting, fewer sick days, and increased productivity. Employers are, on average, saving $11,000 per remote employee.

So, there are a lot of benefits here to consider, so why are some companies trying to force people back into the office?

The Fallout: Who's Going Back?

Tech workers having returned to the office

Let's talk specifics. 

A few major tech players have made headlines with their RTO mandates. Think massive companies including the likes of Amazon, Disney, and Starbucks. This, of course, sets trends for a ton of other companies to follow suit.

Sure, most of these policies state that this is for 3 - 4 days per week and applies to corporate staff, but this is having side effects on the employees who really aren't happy about it, resulting in some pretty vocal pushback from employees.

But it's not just the big names. Surveys show that a staggering 90% of companies want to have their RTO policy in place in some form or another by the end of 2024. That's a lot of workplaces where people are feeling the pressure to return and a ton of conflict between it all.

Potential Losses: The Talent War Heats Up

An near-empty office after everyone left after being forced to return to work

So, you're a recruiter, business owner, running or involved in the running of a tech company of sorts and you're looking for ways to bring the top tech talent to your company to outshine the competition and become top dog.

How do you do that?

Well, here's what companies might not realise (or maybe they do...): skilled tech workers have options right now.

They're skilled, and they're leading the charge of where the industry is going and what products and services exist, meaning their hotcakes. Everyone wants them.

And when you have 90% of companies trying to force people back to the office, this not only puts people off applying for jobs, but it may even cause a major talent drain across the board, opening the doors to new opportunities being available.

Why settle for a company stuck in the past when you could work for someone who embraces flexibility?

Many tech pros (and a third of executives in a recent Gartner poll) are flat-out saying they'll jump ship if their current job goes fully in-office. And that's a loss companies can't afford in this competitive market.

Is Remote Work Over?

While some companies seem determined to pretend the last few years didn't happen, I seriously doubt it. Full-time remote work likely won't be the default for every single company, but it's also not going away.

Of course, we've all seen the rise of "hybrid". Love it or hate it, some form of part-time in-office, part-time remote seems to be where many workplaces are headed. Whether this is a good compromise or just a wishy-washy mess remains to be seen.

With all this in mind, however, the important thing to note is that employees now hold more cards than ever before.

In-demand tech workers aren't likely to tolerate returning to the old 9-to-5 office grind. Companies who ignore this do so at their own risk. Fully in-office-only might become increasingly rare, especially in tech.

To Mandate or Not: Considerations for Your Company

Leaders of a tech company having a meeting to discuss RTO policies

Look, I'm not going to sugarcoat it: forcing everyone back to the office is a potentially risky move in any industry, particularly in tech. Before issuing any mandates, companies need some serious soul-searching:

  • Be Honest About Your WHY: Are you pushing RTO because of genuine, company-specific needs (those that remote just can't solve), or because "that's how it's always been done"?
  • Flexibility Isn't Optional Anymore: Even if you do go hybrid, it needs real flexibility. Think of some fully remote roles, varied in-office days... rigid "Tuesdays and Thursdays for everyone!" isn't going to cut it.
  • Listen to Your People (Seriously): Anonymous surveys are your friend here. Find out what employees actually want and what makes them most productive. Ignoring their concerns guarantees a morale nosedive, even if people don't immediately quit.
  • If You MUST, Do It Smartly: Phased transitions, crystal-clear communication, explaining the rationale... don't just spring an RTO mandate on people. Give them time to adjust, and be prepared to address concerns.

Bottom Line: Unless your company has a truly compelling reason that ONLY an office solves, embrace the fact that work has changed. Flexibility is a necessity for attracting and keeping the best talent.

The Worst-Case Scenario

Think forcing people back into the office has no consequences? Think again. Here's the nightmare scenario for companies clinging to the past:

  • Losing Your Stars: Recent surveys show that over 39% of workers would rather quit than give up remote work. Competitors who offer flexibility will gladly snap up your best talent.
  • The Productivity Paradox: Even if employees physically return, forcing them into an unwanted setup breeds resentment. Again, studies prove that unhappy workers are less productive, with motivation plummeting along with morale.
  • Bad PR – Tech Edition: Word gets around. Your company becomes known as "that place that hates remote." This severely hampers attracting new talent, especially in 2023, where flexibility is a top priority for skilled tech professionals.

Put this puzzle together, and the truth is that inflexible companies aren't just shooting themselves in the foot; they're aiming at their entire future success.


The return-to-office debate isn't going away anytime soon. The key for companies is to resist the urge for a one-size-fits-all answer. What works for one workplace might be disastrous for another.

Before making any significant moves, do your homework. Assess your company's unique needs, listen to your employees, and be honest about the potential risks. 

The future of work demands strategic thinking, not just a return to the way things were. The companies that will shine will be the ones willing to adapt and build a company where everyone rises together.


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