The return-to-office debate, explained

Recently, Amazon announced that corporate workers would have to return to the office at least three days a week.

The return-to-office debate, explained
Source: Pexels/Tima Miroshnichenko

The COVID pandemic delivered a big blow to traditional workplaces. Many people have ended up working from home for months or, now, even years. With the pandemic winding down and many workplaces trying to return to pre-pandemic norms, will everyone have to go back into the office?

Recently, Amazon announced that corporate workers would have to return to the office at least three days a week. But, a lot of employees have moved away from Amazon’s offices over the past couple of years. The company is now ordering some of those workers to relocate so they can come in to work.

“There’s more energy, collaboration, and connections happening since we’ve been working together at least three days per week, and we’ve heard this from lots of employees and the businesses that surround our offices,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.

Return-to-office (RTO) mandates like this one have caught on in the corporate world, sparking a massive debate.

Why do companies want their staff to work in the office?

While some workplaces can operate smoothly without people in the office, others can’t. Security and data protection, reliable network access and tech accessibility can all be limited when working outside of the office. There can also be trouble with communication and collaboration between employees and consistent productivity levels. According to a new white paper from researchers at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, “Fully remote working appears to lower average productivity by around 10% to 20%.” But, they also found there hasn’t really been a productivity loss when it comes to hybrid work models.

On the flip side of this debate, many workers want to keep work-from-home (WFH) flexibility. One major reason for this is that workers don’t want to deal with their daily commutes, which eat up time that they aren’t compensated for. Commuting also costs money, whether that involves taking public transit or driving. For example, a 30-day unlimited metrocard in New York City is rising to US$132, which is about US$1,584 a year. In Hong Kong, a monthly pass on the Tung Chung line is HK$650 (US$83), which would come to HK$7,800 (US$997) a year.

Work-life balance is also relevant, with workers able to better manage their personal responsibilities when working from home. Another issue here is accessibility. With widely available WFH models, disabled people have had better access to employment. Remote work removed many of the hurdles of office settings (like issues commuting, physical building inaccessibility, issues with noisy and crowded spaces and discrimination based on social cues).