It seems that the days of employees enjoying - or loathing - their entirely remote work environments are coming to an end, with scores of world-leading companies recently announcing return-to-work mandates.

Zoom, the video conferencing platform that profited substantially from remote work during the pandemic, is now asking employees to return to the office. Its CEO, Eric Yuan, claims Zoom meetings don't encourage innovation or allow people to build trust.

You don't have to look far to find examples of other companies who feel the same - Goldman Sachs wants employees in five days a week, Google is factoring employees' in-office attendance into their performance reviews, and Amazon, Apple, Meta and JPMorgan have all brought their fully remote workforce eras to an end.

A balancing act

For some professional workers - those who have likely grown accustomed to slippers over stilettos, leisurely Monday morning starts, and unfettered access to their pantry full of snacks - these mandates have felt like a rude and unnecessary intrusion. While a section of the workforce has been vocal in speaking out against return-to-office policies, equally loud have been those who are choosing to adopt a permanently hybrid approach to work, recognising the importance of social connections with colleagues, the lack of creativity a remote environment fosters, and the difficulty of sustaining a healthy company culture from afar.

According to new research from McKinsey, spending half of working time in the office is the ideal setup for hybrid work, as it gives employees the flexibility they crave without the isolation of working remotely full-time. The research found that when workers spent at least 50% of their time together in person, it vastly improved mentorship, collaboration, trust between colleagues, retention and overall team performance. This 50/50 ratio is what McKinsey has deemed the ‘hybrid sweet spot,' giving new joiners a chance to get to know the rest of their team, allowing managers more face-to-face time with their direct reports, and fostering a culture of learning and support.

The cost of remote work

Anyone who's attended a brainstorming session via a Zoom or Teams call will be able to attest to the creativity argument behind a hybrid approach - being geographically scattered makes collaborative creativity hard. This can be stifling for companies who rely on their creative outputs, but even for companies who don't, it can get in the way of creativity improving their processes and efficiencies. Ultimately, creativity thrives in shared spaces - not over screens.  

Additionally, many remote workers are coming to terms with the impact of long-term isolation on their physical and mental health. Without the social interactions that come naturally in a physical office, employees inevitably have fewer opportunities to build relationships with coworkers. Similarly, the absence of clear boundaries between work and personal life in a remote setting can lead to overworking, exacerbating feelings of burnout.

Such factors point to hybrid working as not simply a compromise between employer and employee, but rather as the solution that is most beneficial to both parties.

What's next?

We're going to need more than mandates to get people back into the office. The concept of ‘earning the commute' is growing in popularity, with employees requiring a space that is equal to, or better than, their home environments. Serviced offices with unique décor, ergonomic working spaces, gyms, break-out rooms, and other onsite amenities are just some of the ways businesses will incentivise workers - as well as a shift to prioritising employees' physical and mental health.

With Jeremy Hunt recently offering tax ‘super deductions' to companies that enhance their wellbeing provisions, expect to see more social sports teams, free mental health services, and comfortable office designs in response. At Office Space in Town (OSiT) a recent survey of our own workforce revealed that 95% of employees believed healthcare provisions could positively impact their mental and/or physical health, demonstrating the value workers place on this benefit. As a part of this survey, we are also in conversation with our graduates throughout their inductions to gain further insight into how new working methods, like hybrid, are affecting individuals at the beginning their career journeys - judging if they believe it's helping or hindering their progress. Regardless of whether employees are in or out of the office, it's clear that their wellbeing should always be prioritised.

Almost no one is arguing for a complete return to the traditional structure of the work week - it's a widely acknowledged view (and one backed by experts) that we are living in a new era. The swing from the classic in-office job to the remote revolution we've witnessed over the past three years has showcased the two extreme ends of the spectrum, and we're now realising that the best option is to have a bit of both.

Hybrid working offers moderation, flexibility, accountability, and is sustainable for businesses and employees alike. It's not just a compromise - it's a solution that empowers workers and benefits companies, and is undoubtedly an upgrade from our pre-pandemic landscape.