I’ve made the mistake of getting on Reddit and reading through the WFH subreddit. There are a lot of folks on there commenting that their boss is demanding a return to the office (RTO). This brings up some very good questions.
Why were employees permitted to work from home for three years? Were they not productive from 2020 – 2023?
Well, let’s take a look.
There was a move to WFH prior to 2020. I saw the probability of that way back when I saw a modem for the first time. I was all of maybe 10 (dang it, I’m dating myself) when the Commodore 64 was new. You know, cassette tape drives! My parents ran a business out of our home, and my mother did all the office work and dispatching / scheduling Dad to the job sites. As a result, I was familiar with the idea of having my mother at home, working. It was pretty novel at the time! This also drove me to choose computer science as a college major when that time came. (After I had kids and a divorce, I switched to accounting due to the huge changes in the CS field. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up, although it’s still my first love.)
I could see the value, particularly for women, of being able to have both a career and a family – a balancing act that’s nearly impossible. Women who manage it usually have a lot of support, such as housekeepers and nannies. So I saw firsthand that, without a commute, women like my mother could work while still being primary caretaker for children and other family members, which I believe to be a huge win for society. At least, the women in my own life, such as my mother and my peers, preferred to be able to have both a valuable career, a means to have their own money and to care for their own children without relying so much on outside help. (For perspective, I’m the oldest of 8 children. Mom worked either from home or around our schedules until she retired. She and my father have celebrated 60 years of marriage and are still in love with each other. It’s adorable.)
In 2014, 34% of CEOs expected over half the workforce to be remote by 2020. So the idea was already in the works. I know I fought anyone who wanted me to work from an office when I had the same capabilities from home.
Working in an office environment, especially with an open office floor plan, makes productivity very difficult. I was always distracted with other conversations, colleagues stopping by my desk to talk, and the general noise in the office. At the time, though, PCs were not in every home, home internet access was both not common and slow, and I needed office machines that were prohibitively expensive for the home. Today, I have all the office equipment I can use, it cost me less than $1000 – and it’s nicer and in better shape than anything I’ve seen in offices lately.
By the end of 2020, 71% of employees who were able to work remotely, were. And what happened?
63% of employees are more productive working remotely.
The majority of employees work more hours when they’re working remotely. Only 12% felt that they worked more in the office than they do from a home office. 54% prefer video calling to in person meetings – and I agree, it’s easier to troubleshoot challenges when I can screen-share versus when I have to lean over someone’s shoulder to see their screen. Not to mention the time savings in commuting!
Some, but all, employees do miss the social aspect of working in an office, but that’s not a deal breaker. 62% would be happy working from home forever.
So why are so many business leaders pushing so hard for a return to the office?
Some managers only know how to use the “butts in seats” method of management. If they see their employees at their desks, they must be productive. It is easy to infer that these managers are not comfortable leading remote teams. However, the “butts in seats” method is a very ineffective management method.
Municipal governments are also putting pressure on companies to return to the office, due to the loss of tax revenue from businesses in the downtown core who cater to the “business lunch” crowd. Owners of commercial office space would also like to see a return to the office, as their vacancy rates are high enough to rate the buildings as “distressed.”
These things happen every time there is a large change in culture or technology. The things that made in office culture a good thing 10 years or so ago are not longer necessary.
In my humble (or not) opinion, giving employees choices on work locations is a good thing. I would like to see more businesses do it.
Donna Harris holds a BSci in Accounting and an MBA, and is the owner of Bookkeeping Made Simple.
Donna Harris, BSci Accounting, MBA, founded Bookkeeping Made Simple with the understanding that small businesses is the heart of the American economy. After offering to do books for a friend who said he didn't have enough work to keep someone in the office 20 hours a week, she recognized the need for an efficient, online system. She has 20 years of bookkeeping and accounting experience and is excited to help small business owners achieve their goals. She enjoys spending time with her family and traveling whenever possible. She also loves reading, hiking, camping, cooking, yoga, and fitness. A huge believer in lifelong education, she is currently working on her master's in Accounting.