Last year was supposed to be the year that workers returned to the office. According to a new report from hybrid work software company Scoop, at the beginning of 2023, 49% of U.S. companies required employees to work in-person full-time. But by the end of 2023, that share fell to just 38%. Today, 65% of companies offer some workers flexibility in where they spend their working hours.
Since the pandemic began, employers and employees have fiercely debated the benefits—and detriments—of remote work.
“The conversation is quite polarized,” says Rob Sadow, CEO and cofounder of Scoop. “On the one hand, you have some CEOs who believe that companies are only serious if they’re full-time in office. And you have other folks on the opposite side of the spectrum [who] push really hard for fully remote work and who question why we have offices to begin with.”
Proponents of remote work—disproportionately workers—argue that flexibility empowers employees to balance productive professional and personal lives. Meanwhile, proponents of full-time in-person work—disproportionately senior executives—hinge their argument on two claims: that an organization’s culture is more productive and collaborative when workers physically share the same office; and that workers’ career opportunities improve when people are able to network in-person five days per week.
Now, as the proverbial dust from the pandemic settles and researchers are able to collect significant data on the impact of newer workplace styles, Sadow argues that we are collectively moving toward a new normal in which most companies offer a structured hybrid work schedule.
The hypothesis that working in-person leads to a better workplace culture has been the cornerstone of many decision-makers’ choice to force workers to return to the office. However, Scoop’s new report suggests this claim may be unfounded.
For the report, Scoop analyzed data from its Flex Index which includes information from over 8,000 companies that collectively employ over 100 million employees across 60,000 offices in the United States and abroad. Boston Consulting Group helped Scoop analyze 450,000 Glassdoor ratings across 554 public companies on Scoop’s Flex Index.
What they found was that people who worked in an office full-time reported the lowest levels of work-life balance and rated their organization’s culture and values the lowest when compared to people who worked completely remote or with a structured hybrid schedule. Meanwhile, workers who had full flexibility over where they worked reported the highest levels of work-life balance and rated their organization’s workplace culture and values the highest.
“The clear loser here on culture, from a score perspective, was full-time in-office,” says Sadow.
Debbie Lovich, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group adds that hybrid workers reported the highest levels of enjoyment and effectiveness at work.
Another common argument for working from an office full-time is that it allows workers the opportunity to network with their peers, which in turn could lead to growth opportunities. Many call this phenomenon “proximity bias.”
But when Scoop and BCG researched how remote work impacted career development, they found that working remotely did not negatively impact workers. In fact, those who worked full-time in an office reported the lowest levels of career opportunities and hybrid workers reported the highest.
“A lot of people still believe, myself included, that when it comes to relationship development, there’s an element to being in person that just is stronger in that regard,” says Sadow. “But at the same time, you don’t need to be together five days a week for that to happen.”
A new normal
Given data such as this, Lovich, who leads BCG’s future of work research suggests that there may be other reasons why so many leaders have pushed workers to return to the office full-time.
“There is an interesting connection between [when] financial performance drops and [when] CEOs demand people come into the office,” she says, suggesting instead of addressing underlying issues, many senior leaders choose to force workers to return to older work styles they are more accustomed to. “It’s like hazing.”
“In times of stress, we go back to the things that make us comfortable or made us successful in the first place,” says Sadow. He adds, “But the next crop of senior executives that grow up over the next five, 10, 15 years will have had a wholly different experience.”