Forcing staff to return to the office full time is 'unrealistic', say senior execs at Davos

Forcing staff to return to the office full time is 'unrealistic', say senior execs at Davos
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been embroiled in a battle with staff over plans to mandate which days they are in the office.Brian Stukes / Contributor Getty
  • Execs from banking, finance, and education used the Davos Summit to call for hybrid-working models.
  • Most workers don't want to return to offices full time, and forcing them to is "unrealistic."

After months of back and forth, business leaders finally appear to be letting go of the full-time office.

Senior executives from banking, investment management, and education are using the Davos Summit to call for flexible and hybrid-work policies as a cure to the Great Resignation.

They warn that firms that won't offer their employees a choice over where and how they work risk losing out, amid still-surging quit rates, mass job vacancies, and a labor force whose attitude to work-life balance has been fundamentally changed by the pandemic.

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"The genie is out of the bottle. Anyone who tries to put it back in is maybe not being realistic about what's actually happened," Ravin Jesuthasan, a global transformation leader at the asset-management company Mercer, told Insider at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Different sectors vary, but when polled for Microsoft's 2022 Work Trends Index, as many as 50% of leaders said their companies plan to require full-time, in-person work within the next year.


Yet according to a poll of 30,000 workers by the ADP Research Institute, 64% said they'd consider looking for a new job if they were required to return to the office full time. It was one of multiple surveys to show a similar trend.

"Requiring people to come to work is not going to work," Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of the online-education provider Coursera, told Insider.

"You might be able to get your medium-level talent to do that, but your best computer scientists and data scientists, they're not gonna come," Maggioncalda said. Although Coursera still has offices, it operates a remote-first policy.

Some banks, often maligned by outsiders for their presenteeism work culture, are starting to agree.

"We will never go back to the old 80% to 90% of the people in the office," Thomas Gottstien, Credit Suisse's CEO, told Bloomberg on Monday.


The bank's flexible work policy leaves it up to teams and managers to decide how often they're in. The policy — like that of CitiBank and others — is a diversion from the hardline mandates pushed by the likes of JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, companies that are sticking to their guns that work should be office-based.

That is "unrealistic and is not what employees want," Gottstien said. He told Bloomberg that around 37% of employees at Credit Suisse had returned to the office.

Workers want flexibility, not just remote work

The majority of firms that have adopted a hybrid-work model since the pandemic began operate what Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor and remote-work expert, refers to as the "3:2: or "Vanilla" model, where staffers split their time two days at home and three days in the office. His and other studies suggest that the majority of workers who can want to split their time between work and home.

Many organizations fail when they "lead with policy," Mercer's Jesuthasan said. "It's not flexible unless it's a choice."

Companies should focus on outcomes rather than quotas with their hybrid-work approach, he added. "If you turn around and say, 'You have to be in the office three days a week,' it's like, 'No, you know what, tell me why.'"


Apple CEO Tim Cook's ongoing battle with staff over mandates that workers should be at their desks on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays is indicative of the challenges companies can face. It has already seen one Apple director quit.

Flexibility often means different things for different generations, staffing giant ManpowerGroup's regional president for Northern Europe, Riccardo Barberis, told Insider of the firm's in-house employee survey.

It found that older employees were "tired of bad bosses," while the younger generation said they "don't want to be seated as a passenger" with someone else controlling their career path.

"It was very clear that one size fits one," he added.

Hybrid-work policies are challenging

If not properly implemented, with clear boundaries and rules for communicating, hybrid work can lead to a "two-class" system of workers that favors those working in person over those who don't. That could exacerbate existing inequalities in the workplace.


Luc Remont, an executive vice president for Schneider Electric Group, told Insider his organization was focusing on the "balance" between home and office work after being more remote for the last two years. "Heart-to-heart, face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact," remains beneficial for "difficult, transformation discussions," he said.

"It takes a lot more skill for managers to manage a hybrid team — and they're not properly trained and they need to be trained," Christy Hoffman, the general secretary of UNI Workers Union, which represents service workers globally, told Insider.

It's easy for managers to say "let's just go back to how it was before, because it's too much trouble to figure this out," she said. "That's not really what anybody wants."