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Pros and Cons of Return to Office: What CHROs Should Keep in Mind

 Over the last few years, many employees have found their work-related expenditures – and stress levels – lowering, thanks to work-from-home and hybrid work options. It’s not surprising, then, that they would be reluctant to give those up, but many companies are pushing for the benefits that come with returning to in-person work. How can CHROs best navigate these questions and balance competing answers?


Why Employees Are Concerned

On average, the typical American spends $8,466 and allocates 239 hours commuting annually; it’s an increase of 31% more money and 20% more time than before the pandemic, and it can represent as much as 19% of these commuters’ total income. There are certainly some additional costs associated with work-from-home and hybrid setups, such as higher home energy bills, but there are also notable savings in gas, vehicle maintenance, and food/beverages. Commuting itself is also a “waste” of otherwise productive time, and studies have shown that many employees will actually direct a significant portion of that “saved” time toward their job duties.


Childcare concerns are also driving much of the reluctance to return to fully in-person work. Of the workers who left their jobs in 2021, 48% cited issues with childcare, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, the average monthly cost of childcare is 32% higher than it was in 2019, and with the 2023 expiration of the childcare stabilization credit, the burden has only increased for many families.


These issues are particularly relevant among certain demographics. Millennials are currently the largest demographic in the workforce and are at the age where they are the most affected by childcare burdens. It’s also affecting women disproportionately: 54% of mothers say that childcare decisions have impacted their professional opportunities, while 13% say they left their jobs altogether because of these issues, and 65% worry that taking time off to manage family issues has caused them to be perceived at work as unreliable or unprofessional.


Finally, the shift to work-from-home and hybrid work has also placed a spotlight on questions of workplace culture, overall. Research has found that one in four workers report experiencing rudeness at work, while a whopping 78% of frontline workers witness “incivility” at least once a month at work (70% say they witness it at least two or three times monthly). Similar concerns are reported about psychological safety for in-person work: those who work on site are 66% more likely to feel like their mistakes are being held against them, 56% are more likely to say that people are rejected for being “different” somehow, and 36% are more likely to find it challenging to ask teammates for help when they need it.


The Benefits of Return to Office (RTO)

If companies want people to come back to on-site work and thrive, they must first address these issues that are holding people back from embracing return to office. This could take the form of new perks and benefits to offset childcare and commuting costs, along with demonstrations of a real commitment to improving company culture, building trust, improving positivity, and a sense of “safety” when it comes to taking risks and innovating.


When those things are addressed, however, in-person work can have real benefits and boost careers. Of those workers surveyed by the American Staffing Association, 56% believe that on-site workers have a competitive advantage over remote workers when it comes time for raises, promotions, and bonuses. It’s the idea of “out of sight, out of mind”: remote workers are not “seen” by leadership, and they may also miss out on opportunities to personally access the data, examples, and training they need to advance their careers. In this case, return to office can re-equalize the playing field, improve the perception of fairness, and provide more career advancement opportunities.


Similarly, remote work can make it more difficult for employees to get mentorship, especially newer employees who have never worked in-person with a given company. It ties back to psychological safety; in some ways, employees may find themselves stressing about how to ask a question (via phone, or email, or instant message) rather than focusing on the actual learning that should occur from asking the question in the first place. Flexible work options may be helpful in balancing the preference for remote/hybrid work among younger generations with the benefits of in-office collaboration and mentorship.


It’s also worth noting that the very things that frustrate some workers (or make them want to stay remote) are the same things that may encourage others to return to the office. The Society for Human Resource Management reports that “the things remote employees miss the most include: in-person workplace conversations (cited by 61 percent of respondents), the regular and daily structure of reporting to a worksite (42 percent), lunches and happy hours with colleagues (40 percent), and reduced interruptions by kids during the workday (37 percent).”


In other words, it’s not one-size-fits-all. There is no one path that guarantees success, other than the path of listening to employees and working to find truly effective solutions. CHROs will be leading the way in developing well-balanced and flexible work solutions that genuinely address employees’ top concerns while also improving productivity and morale. Ultimately, responsiveness and consideration are key: keep your employees’ needs front and center, and success will usually follow!


About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben Moreno and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.”  Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR & Diversity Executive Search practice specializing in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of Chief HR Officers and Chief Diversity Officers and their respective teams — inclusive of leaders in Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HRBP’s, Learning & OD, HR Technology, HR Operations, and HR Analytics. Ruben has helped place hundreds of HR Executives and built deep relationships within the CHRO community across multiple industry verticals. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their business and add value beyond executive search.

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