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Update on the Full-Time Office Work Week: Still Dead

return-to-office mandates and an empty office

Throughout 2023, a number of top executives have clamored about forcing employees back to the office full-time. They claim doing so will boost productivity as workers have better opportunities to connect and create. They also predict that as jobs become scarcer, that return-to-office mandates can be implemented more readily. In considering these perspectives, however, one has to question their merit. After all, the pandemic is well past, and if anything, flexible work arrangements seem to be only advancing, not retracting. And even if the job market shifts, will this really be something firms want to pursue? Before doing so, it’s worth taking a look not only at where we are today but where we’re headed.

an empty office despite return-to-office mandates
The clearest indicator that remote/hybrid work is here to stay? The failure of return-to-office mandates.

(Working in the office full-time is kaput, and renting out a WeWork space is kaput–read all about it in this Bold story.)

It’s evident in most major cities today that a significant majority of firms support remote and hybrid work schedules. These flexible work arrangements were initially put in place in an effort to attract top talent. But as time has passed, the call for return-to-office mandates has only involved a small minority of companies. There’s a reason for this, and its not because businesses are at their workers’ mercy. The bottom line is that remote work offers many advantages to just about every stakeholder involved. And unless returning to the office can overpower these gains, full-time office positions will only continue to dwindle.

Exploring Remote Work Stats

In major cities across the nation, there has been a significant drop in days spent in the office. Based on electronic “card swipe” data, cities like New York and San Francisco have seen a 50% reduction in office days. This has contributed significantly to the commercial real estate crisis and urban doom loop. But these aren’t the only cities experiencing such trends. Denver, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Philadelphia show similar numbers. And nationwide, the average number of days worked from home out of the workweek is about 30%. This shows that flexible work arrangements persist to a great degree. Even with return-to-office mandates by some companies, these figures show remote work remains popular.

(The urban doom loop is real–read all about it in this Bold story.)

Speaking of return-to-work mandates, it tends to be larger and more mature corporations that have encouraged these policies. But startups tend to support opposite trends when it comes to flexible work arrangements. In fact, over three-quarters of startups today support either hybrid or remote work in some capacity. Having launched their businesses using online and remote technologies, such structures don’t seem nearly as atypical. This contrasts with some executives who fell less comfortable with out-of-office workers. However, given that today’s startups will be tomorrow’s large corporations, this favors flexible work arrangements. And it disfavors return-to-office mandates moving forward.

an empty office because everyone is working from home
The notion of employees returning to the office full-time is folly–especially since the world proved that working from home is a viable option.

A Technology-Supported Evolution

Today’s remote work environments wouldn’t excel without technologies. It’s clear that various advances, which happened to evolve in the decade before the pandemic, supported such trends. Keeping this in mind, a look back at recent history shows accelerated tendencies when it comes to flexible work arrangements. In the 1960s, fewer than 1% worked remotely from home. But this has since doubled every 15 years through 2019. And notably, it has accelerated even more as of late. Along the way, specific technological advances supported these remote work opportunities. Initially it was the computer followed by portable laptops. Smartphones and the Internet then further fueled these opportunities followed by cloud computing and storage. Understanding this, it’s not likely we’ll return to the “good ol’ days.” This is a big reason why return-to-office mandates won’t be very effective.

Videoconference capacities advanced significantly during the pandemic alongside new policies and processes. These developed out of necessity initially, but since, these same procedures have become streamlined and perfected. Many companies have become efficient in utilizing these technologies, which can save time and costs when done well. Even though companies like Zoom require some in-office days for employees, they support flexible work arrangements. In fact, for employees at Zoom who live more than 50 miles away, a completely remote work option exists. These technologies essentially became tools that companies are continually leveraging to improve. This too makes it unlikely that return-to-office mandates will survive.

A Trifecta of Benefits

flexible work arrangements and a half-full office
Flexible work arrangements are the order of the day, with full-time office work requirements floundering.

While some executives in the C-suite throw their support fully behind return-to-office mandates, deep down they’re likely ambivalent. Why? Because in all probability, their bottom line is benefitting from flexible work arrangements. With pricey payments for commercial real estate, overhead is naturally down. Likewise, evidence fully supports that the vast majority of workers are more productive when working hybrid or remote schedules. This means firms are increasing their revenues while reducing cost, which results in greater profitability. And when companies are seeing such returns, they’re not likely to change course.

From employees’ point of view, flexible work arrangements are definitely preferred by the majority. According to some reports, working from home is the equivalent to an 8% raise in salary. Because commute costs are less or eliminated, there are immediate savings that workers enjoy. Plus, most people loathe the inconveniences of traveling to work such as sitting in traffic and losing hours out of their day. In addition, the ability to manage their family and personal affairs more effectively with such arrangements makes for happier employees. This is why return-to-office mandates have fallen flat when it comes to staff.

Finally, there are notable advantages for society when it comes to flexible work arrangement and remote work. With a third of the work commutes no longer taking place, there are certainly some climate benefits. The reduced carbon waste from these shifts helps with efforts to attain carbon neutral status. Remote work also reduces strains on families and childcare needs to an extent. And it also allows better resource use as a nation as workers can utilize their home work environments instead of offices. From almost every perspective, remote and hybrid work offers clear advantages to in-office schedules. This is why full-time office presence isn’t likely to return. And it’s why return-to-office mandates are really just talk rather than reality.


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