Only half of workers asked back to the office full-time are actually going

Trickling in.
Trickling in.
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Before the pandemic, it would have been strange for a survey question to ask: “Last week, did you come into the business premises as often as your employer wanted?”

You might have even wondered if it was a trick question.

These days, however, employees are aware that the labor market is tight, giving workers the power to make more demands. They have also demonstrated that working from the office full-time isn’t necessary to be productive. Many people are also rethinking what work means to them, and looking for ways to dedicate more of their energy to people and interests outside of the daily grind.

So it has become perfectly reasonable to ask if employees are complying with company directives, which is what Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist, and Jose Maria Barrero, assistant professor of finance at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), recently did.

The results were surprising, even for our times. The duo—both founding members of WFH Research, a data collection project—found that only 49% of workers whose employers have ordered them back to the office full-time are actually showing up all five days of the workweek.

Companies that ask people to come in two, three, or even four days per week are seeing far more people—84%—respect their office policies. Still, says Bloom, “Pre-pandemic, if you had only about 80% of employees come in on any given day, you’d have a terrible problem.”

Employers don’t know how to respond to workers who refuse to come into the office

Managers of employees who just won’t go to the office anymore aren’t sure how to deal with the situation, according to Bloom. It’s not only corporate chiefs who are in this struggle. Bloom says that among the hundreds of leaders he has spoken to, he hears the same complaint from those running schools, hospitals, and even agencies within the UN and World Bank.

For now, managers are mostly looking the other way, according to WFH Research survey data.

Bloom doubts that those who insist on full-time attendance in the office—as Tesla’s Elon Musk did this month—will ever get what they want. That’s because for many roles, the five-day per week rule is just a bad policy. Employees can’t see the sense in it, so they’re not going to do it, and they will look around for a new job instead, Bloom says.

Employees may be more likely to comply with a fixed schedule for in-person work days

For leaders who want to see workers in the office at least a few days per week, he has some advice about how to create a policy that might stick: Choose which days teams should come back into the office together, in consultation with employees. In other words, teams get to choose their in-office days, but individual employees don’t.

When schedules are wide open for all, he points out, about 20% of the staff won’t be there on any given day. Meanwhile, the two top reasons people want to go into the office a few days per week is to work and socialize with colleagues. They’re not there to jump on a Zoom call, says Bloom, and if that’s what keeps happening, your hybrid plan won’t satisfy anyone.

If workers know that meetings and other collaborative projects will be scheduled for the same days every week, however, they should find they actually have more flexibility “to slip away” for life’s reasons on those days they’re working remotely.