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remote working


Revisiting remote working

IbyIMD+ Published 14 April 2023 in Innovation • 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

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