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Return to Office: Understanding the Implications and Challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work, with remote and hybrid work arrangements becoming the norm for organizations in the technology industry. As businesses navigate the new normal in 2024, conversations around return to office (RTO) have surged, forcing companies to grapple with the challenges of transitioning employees back to their physical workplaces, all while prioritizing employee well-being and organizational efficiency.

Our 2023 DigitalOcean Currents research report points to the evolving nature of work arrangements. According to survey results, 39% of companies operate fully remotely, while 48% have adopted a hybrid model, either with required in-office days (23%) or open remote options (25%). Only 14% of companies remain fully in-office. However, when asked about their preferred office experience, 47% of respondents favor a fully remote setup, while 29% prefer a hybrid model with open remote options.

This misalignment between employee preferences and company policies underscores the need for businesses to navigate the RTO process with empathy, flexibility, and open communication. As organizations strive to maintain productivity and collaboration, they must also address the unique challenges and concerns of their employees—from safety measures to work-life balance to a desire for autonomy and flexibility in their work arrangements.

For leaders exploring hybrid or remote work arrangements, DigitalOcean offers a wealth of resources and insights to guide your journey. With years of experience supporting a fully-remote workforce spread across multiple countries, our team has developed expertise in fostering collaboration and productivity while delivering cloud solutions to developers and small-to-medium businesses worldwide.

What is return to office (RTO)?

Return to office (RTO) refers to the process of transitioning employees back to their physical workplaces after an extended period of remote work in the aftermath of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. RTO can take various forms, such as a full-time return to the office or a hybrid approach that combines remote and in-office work, depending on the organization’s needs and/or employee preferences.

Looking to join a fully-remote company with a global presence? DigitalOcean might be the perfect fit for you. Our team members and customers span the globe, mirroring the extensive reach of our products and services. Embrace the opportunity to work with a diverse, international team while contributing to a company that empowers developers and businesses worldwide.

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The historical rise of remote work

Remote work isn’t a modern innovation. Instead, this working style actually has deep roots that predate the recent pandemic. The term “telecommuting” was first introduced by NASA engineer Jack Nilles in 1972, envisioning it as a solution to issues like traffic congestion and resource depletion. By 1979, the concept gained popularity through Frank Schiff’s Washington Post article, which argued that working from home could reduce gasoline use, traffic, pollution, and stress. The practice became increasingly mainstream in the 1980s and exploded in the late 1990s as internet usage soared.

Over the decades, this work style evolved further with technological advancements—high speed internet, team communications apps, video conferencing tools—leading to more sophisticated forms of remote work. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, several technology companies had already embraced remote work, recognizing its benefits for global collaboration and employee flexibility. Notable early adopters included DigitalOcean, Automattic, Doist, Basecamp, and Buffer. These companies not only implemented remote work policies but also evangelized this work style, highlighting benefits such as access to a wider talent pool, reduced overhead costs, and improved employee satisfaction. Their operations, spread across different time zones and involving collaborators from around the world, were early signals about the practicality and effectiveness of remote work long before it became a necessity.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 accelerated the shift to remote work on an unprecedented scale. Governments worldwide imposed lockdowns, forcing businesses to close their physical offices and shift to a remote working model almost overnight. This sudden transition—from boardrooms to Zoom calls—required companies and employees to quickly adapt to new ways of working. For many, the shift to remote work was not just a temporary adjustment but a complete overhaul of their daily work life.

Companies like Twitter, Shopify, and Facebook led the charge by announcing permanent remote work policies, a significant shift in corporate work culture. The benefits of this transition quickly became apparent:

  • A survey by FlexJobs found that 55% of remote workers reported being more productive at home than in the office.

  • An Upwork report estimated that those working from home during the pandemic saved an average of 49.6 minutes a day commuting.

  • Global Workspace Analytics estimates that employees who work remotely full-time save between $2,000 and $7,000 in transportation and work-related costs.

  • A Gallup research report found that employees report the following benefits of a remote work model: improved work-life balance, efficient use of time, more autonomy, less burnout, and higher productivity.

In all, employees experience greater flexibility in work-life balance, reduced commuting times, and lower personal expenses. Plus, organizations noticed that remote work could lead to higher productivity levels and lower operational costs, which helped maintain business continuity during the pandemic’s disruptive impact.

Companies are clawing back remote work

Despite the benefits of remote work—for both organizations and employees—in recent years, many of the initial proponents of permanent remote work have reversed their policies, mandating a RTO. Businesses are reevaluating the balance between remote flexibility and the perceived benefits of in-person collaboration.

For instance, Amazon, under CEO Andy Jassy, announced a policy requiring corporate employees to spend at least three days per week in the office starting May 1, 2023. This decision was said to be part of a broader strategy to improve collaboration and strengthen company culture. Similarly, Apple mandated a return to the office for three days a week, emphasizing the need to restore in-person collaboration.

Other tech giants have also joined the trend of retracting remote work freedoms:

These moves highlight a growing inclination among tech companies to bring workers back to physical workspaces, driven by a mix of corporate goals and evolving perceptions of productivity and corporate culture.

Workers are resisting RTO

As companies increasingly mandate a return to the office, a significant pushback from employees is emerging, highlighting a resistance to abandoning the flexibility of remote work. At Apple, employees have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with the company’s RTO policy, which requires them to be in the office three days a week. This policy has been described by staff as being “driven by fear” of losing control over the workforce and a reluctance to adapt to the future of work.

Similarly, Amazon employees have expressed strong opposition to their RTO mandate, which also demands a three-day office presence. The backlash led to a petition signed by thousands and a planned walkout, underscoring the employees’ discontent with the sudden shift away from remote work flexibility that they had become accustomed to during the pandemic.

More broadly, employees faced with RTO policies are advocating to remain remote for the following reasons:

  • Greater flexibility. Many workers have adjusted to the flexibility that remote work offers, allowing them to better manage personal responsibilities and work-life balance.

  • Reduced commute. Employees have expressed a preference for the time and cost savings associated with not having to commute, which also contributes to a lower carbon footprint.

  • Increased productivity. Contrary to some management beliefs, numerous employees report higher productivity when working from home, free from the frequent interruptions of an office environment.

  • Health concerns. Especially relevant in the post-pandemic era, some employees are concerned about health risks associated with returning to crowded office spaces.

  • Care duties. Remote work has been a boon for employees with caregiving responsibilities, whether for children, elderly relatives, or others, allowing them to be more present and responsive.

This contention highlights a shift in employee expectations and underscores the challenges companies face as they attempt to recalibrate work environments post-pandemic.

Best practices for implementing a RTO policy

As companies navigate the complexities of transitioning from remote to office-based work, establishing effective RTO policies is crucial. These policies should balance organizational needs with employee preferences to foster a work environment that’s both productive and harmonious. Here’s what to keep in mind if your business is considering an RTO:

Clear and frequent communication

Effective communication is foundational to a successful RTO policy. Employers should clearly articulate the reasons for the return, the benefits it offers, and the expectations set for employees. Regular updates and open channels for feedback help in addressing concerns and adjusting policies as needed. Consider the following:

  • Town hall meetings. Host regular virtual or in-person gatherings where leadership can share updates, answer questions, and engage in open dialogue with employees.

  • One-on-one meetings with managers. Encourage managers to schedule individual check-ins with their team members to discuss concerns, provide support, and gather feedback in a more personal setting.

  • Anonymous surveys. Conduct periodic surveys that allow employees to share their thoughts and opinions anonymously, creating a safe space for honest feedback without fear of repercussions.

  • HR office hours. Establish dedicated times when employees can drop in or schedule appointments with HR representatives to ask questions, raise concerns, or seek guidance related to the RTO process.

This approach not only keeps employees well-informed but also helps in building trust and reducing resistance to change.

Flexible work arrangements

Flexibility is key in modern RTO policies. Allowing employees to choose from a range of working options—such as hybrid schedules that combine remote and in-office work—can lead to higher job satisfaction and retention. Here are a few different options to consider:

  • Flexible hybrid schedules. Allow employees to choose the days they work in the office and the days they work remotely, empowering them to create a schedule that optimizes their productivity and work-life balance.

  • Designated in-office days. Assign specific days for all employees to be present in the office, such as “Collaboration Wednesdays,” to foster teamwork, facilitate face-to-face meetings, and maintain a sense of company culture.

  • Core hours. Establish a set of mandatory hours during which all employees must be available, either in the office or remotely, to ensure overlap for collaboration and communication, while allowing flexibility outside of those hours.

  • Seasonal or project-based hybrid. Implement hybrid schedules that align with seasonal demands or project requirements, such as having more in-office time during busy periods or critical project phases, and more remote work during quieter times.

  • Hybrid based on role or function. Tailor hybrid arrangements based on the nature of an employee’s role or job function, with some roles requiring more in-office presence due to equipment needs or client interactions, while others can be performed mostly remotely.

This approach acknowledges that employees have diverse needs and supports a smoother transition back to the office.

Health and safety protocols

Maintaining a safe workplace is essential, especially in the post-pandemic era. RTO policies should include health guidelines like indoor ventilation and sanitization to support employee safety. Companies should also consider mental health support and wellness programs to help employees adjust back to office life.

Employee support and resources

Providing adequate support and resources is crucial for a successful RTO. This includes technological support for hybrid meetings, ergonomic office setups, and resources for stress management. This support helps with physical and mental well-being but also boosts productivity and engagement.

Continuous feedback and adaptation

An effective RTO policy is adaptable. Regularly solicit employee feedback through surveys or forums to gain insights into what is working and what needs improvement. This iterative process allows you to fine-tune your policies in response to employee needs and external changes. This approach fosters a culture of continuous improvement and responsiveness.

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