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remote working

Human Resources

Revisiting remote working

Published 29 June 2023 in Human Resources • 8 min read

The debate about remote working has moved on. To decide how much time employees should spend in the office requires a fundamental review of corporate strategy and purpose, argues John Weeks, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD Business School.  


The corporate message as the COVID-19 pandemic raged could not have been clearer: the office is dead. Having initially been forced to adopt a remote-working model, employers and employees alike had been captivated by its benefits. There would be no going back to pre-pandemic practices. 

In truth, such assertions were always hyperbolic. As soon as lockdown restrictions were relaxed sufficiently, most employers shifted to some form of hybrid working, with in-office work at least made optional. Remote working has certainly become more widespread, but many workers made a return to the office, at least some of the time, in the weeks and months following the end of lockdown. 

Today, however, the conversation about remote working is rapidly becoming a heated argument. On one hand, a growing number of organizations have become convinced of the benefits of getting their workforces back into the office, for most if not all of the time. Investment bank Goldman Sachs, for example, has ordered most employees to return to their physical workplaces full-time. Likewise, the UK Government has sought to put a stop to remote working in the civil service. 

On the other hand, many employees have thoroughly enjoyed the benefits of working remotely for at least part of their week: they’ve saved money and time on commuting; been allowed more flexibility around childcare; and insist that they’ve been as productive as ever. Naturally, people are keen to continue working this way. According to recent data from the European Central Bank’s Consumer Expectations Survey, 40% of workers would prefer to work from home at least two days a week. 

This disconnect between employer expectations and employee preferences has been exacerbated by a shift in labor markets across much of Europe and North America. While unemployment remains low by historical comparison, some industries have made significant lay-offs in recent months – the tech sector alone has shed more than 100,000 jobs. Against this backdrop, many employees will no longer feel quite so confident about being able to walk into a new role should they decide to quit their current job because their employer is unwilling to be flexible in terms of remote working. 

The case for a return to the office 

Employers pushing for a return to the workplace have different motivations. One group simply believes that staff are more productive in the traditional working environment. This view is sometimes characterized as “conservative” – with even some implication that there is a lack of trust on the employer’s part – but the reality is, there is insufficient data to confirm or dismiss this assertion. 

40% of workers would prefer to work from home at least two days a week.
- The European Central Bank’s Consumer Expectations Survey

At the height of the pandemic, some studies suggested that remote working was more productive, while others implied the opposite to be the case. Either way, home working in lockdown is very different from the evolved work landscape we now find ourselves in. In terms of productivity, only a longitudinal study of behaviors and outputs will settle the argument. 

A second group of employers is more concerned about the cultural impacts of remote working, particularly over the medium-to-long term. They worry that staff who come together only rarely will not feel engaged and committed to the organization in the same way as those who work side by side every day. New staff, in particular, they worry, may find it difficult to bond. The opportunity to learn from colleagues through conversation, observation, and simply being in their physical presence for hours every day, would be lost in a remote world. And the spontaneous conversations in the kitchen or over the water cooler, which often drive innovation and collaboration, would disappear once those fleeting venues are no longer available. 

Again, these losses may ultimately prove to be superficial – or they may prove highly significant; there is as yet insufficient data to decide. Monitoring and measuring corporate culture, in any case, is far from straightforward. Nevertheless, many employers remain opposed to a work culture in which remote working predominates.  

In both groups, many employers that have sought to bring staff back into the office, but haven’t managed to do so in large numbers, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of operating with working practices they do not believe are in the best interests of their organizations. 

How to move forward 

Employers, therefore, have some choices to make. First, they must decide on the working model they wish to follow. They will then need to explain clearly the benefits of that position. 

Some organizations have invested significant resources in becoming more inclusive and collaborative

There will inevitably be employees who reject their employers’ arguments. The extent to which organizations then implement their approach – and whether it is phased in or enforced swiftly as a crackdown – will depend on a range of factors. Employers who are confident of the quality of the general working conditions, compensation, and range of benefits that they offer their employees will feel more confident about insisting on a certain amount of office time. Those who perceive themselves to be on shakier ground in this respect may feel they need to tread more warily in order to safeguard their recruitment and retention power. 

Some organizations have invested significant resources in becoming more inclusive and collaborative. Forcing staff back to the office, even in the name of strengthening corporate culture, will be self-defeating if it contradicts the values to which the employee originally signed up. 

Judging the advantages of a new model 

The second challenge is to consider the details of the new arrangements. For example, if staff are required to work in the office for three days a week, can those be any three days or will they be set days, a rotating schedule, etc.? 

Employers’ priorities, as well as employee preferences, will inform this debate. Some organizations see remote working as an opportunity to reduce their real-estate footprint: if more people are working remotely, they could move to a smaller workplace, lowering overheads. However, employers who believe getting staff back to the office is important for the purposes of collaboration and innovation will naturally want people to come in together; this model will require the business to retain significant workspace capacity. 

Employers will need to judge these trade-offs carefully. Does an employer’s ambition for real-estate savings trump its cultural agenda? Is the desire to get staff back into the office according to a strict timetable so strong that individual flexibility must be limited? 

Some employers are tackling this at team or function level. It could make sense to have finance, say, in the office from Monday to Wednesday, with sales expected to attend Wednesday to Friday. Such a system would mean close colleagues would know they will be in together to collaborate and consult one another as required, while allowing some overlap with the other team for personal contact, where necessary. However, many employers are still wedded to the concept of allowing spontaneous contact between employees across the business – a chance meeting between a finance executive and their opposite number in sales, for example. Those meetings will become less likely if different teams are in the office at different times. 

What does today’s office look like? 

A related issue here is the nature of the office to which staff are returning. Employers who are still thinking along traditional lines of keeping their staff under direct supervision, where they can ensure that they are working hard, may see no reason to change the office environment, and seek simply to repopulate it. However, for those employers who want to revitalize the office environment as a center for collaboration and innovation, there will be an imperative to rethink the physical space to support this. If the future of work looks just like its past, with individual workers stuck in isolation in their cubicles, there can be little hope of progress. 

Compromise, consideration, and a commitment to making the new arrangement work will be the key ingredients in a successful office evolution.

Equally, some employers are beginning to examine the possibilities of offering new modes of collaboration that function through online networks, providing the same benefits to remote workers as those offered by face-to-face working. 

It is early days, but many employers have high hopes of augmented and virtual reality. The metaverse, for example, could provide a virtual venue with many of the advantages (and fewer of the limitations) of physical interaction and, going even further into the realm of science fiction, holography provides an interesting avenue to explore. 

Whichever of these new technologies rises to the top of business agendas, they will rely on the employee’s willingness to engage and work around whatever limitations remain or are introduced. There be much less scope for natural spontaneity of interaction, for example, so more introverted staff will be expected to venture out of their comfort zones to participate. 

Policing the new deal 

One final question for employers as they navigate the world of remote working is the extent to which they will hold staff to account. That may require them to monitor employees’ activity and whereabouts more closely. Apple, for example, has begun tracking staff’s badge records to check that they are in the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, as its leadership has mandated. Staff may face disciplinary action if they ignore warnings. 

For employers keen to maintain morale, inclusivity, and trust with their workforces (not to mention retain valued employees), this may seem a step too far. Compromise, consideration, and a commitment to making the new arrangement work will be the key ingredients in a successful office evolution. 


John Weeks

John R. Weeks

Professor of Leadership at IMD

IMD professor John R Weeks helps leaders understand how they can manage themselves to lead others more effectively and to have a positive and intentional impact on the culture in their part of their organization. Before joining IMD in 2007, he spent 11 years at INSEAD, France, where he was nominated three times as Best Teacher. An American who has lived on three continents, he served on the Board of Directors of LEO Pharma, and he has worked with clients in Europe, the Americas and Asia.


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