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Why you should rethink return-to-office mandates

Many employees prefer remote work and are more productive, though it requires some creative leadership.

Why you should rethink return-to-office mandates
[Source photo: Goodboy Picture Company/Getty Images]

This March, four years after many businesses began to operate remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dell announced to its workforce that any employee who wants a promotion must start working in person. This message followed announcement from IBM in January, that managers should begin reporting in person or plan to leave their roles. Managers in companies across sectors have been continuously reducing remote work as public health restrictions faded over the past few years, reflecting a desire to return to the traditional, in-person work models.

The question of where companies do their work requires considering a variety of factors: the sector they operate in, client expectations, corporate culture, and the physical distribution of their workforces. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and for some organizations, an in-person environment is best. But there are compelling reasons to believe that in many cases, especially in information-based industries like software, fully remote work is preferable to stay productive, competitive, and attractive to talent.


Before the pandemic, I counted myself among those who placed the utmost value on having a fully in-person workforce. But as a CEO with three decades of experience managing tech workforces, I know that the only constant is change, and I accept new information when it presents itself. These past four years, I’ve watched my teams thrive while working remotely, and have come to see continued remote work as the best path forward for my company.

One of the most commonly cited reasons to enforce a return to the office is productivity; some managers believe that workers can’t match the office environment efficiency at home. The evidence behind this assertion is decidedly mixed. Some studies of remote work’s productivity impact show small declines, while others show modest to significant gains. A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found no discernible impact on productivity either way from remote work.

It’s understandable that productivity would vary across industries. Healthcare may not be as productive virtually as it is in person, even if telehealth services often make sense for cost or convenience. In software, on the other hand, coding can happen anywhere—and is best in a comfortable environment with limited distractions, like a home office, while adopting best practices to maintain engineering groups’ team structures.


It’s essential to understand the best ways to ensure high productivity levels, like creating team structures for motivation and accountability, and apply them to a virtual workplace. At my company, Blackbaud, we have taken steps to replicate the “team sport” mentality by creating scrum teams that work together closely, using collaborative software to coordinate projects. We also institute biweekly standup meetings for these scrum teams to celebrate progress or milestones, creating a regular opportunity to measure achievement and assess where productivity needs improvement. In customer support, we redesigned our onboarding process into a “buddy system.” After a traditional training period, new team members spend time with a more experienced employee listening to support calls and receiving individual feedback.

These best practices have allowed us to improve measurable productivity in several metrics, including a 20% increase in the consistency in delivering new capabilities, improved sales agent efficiency, and improved customer and employee satisfaction.


Productivity aside, one compelling reason to maintain or introduce a remote-first model is to boost a company’s competitiveness in the talent race. In the four years since the pandemic began, the availability of remote work as an option has become not just a coveted benefit for employees, but often an expectation.

Employee surveys show clear risks of mandatory return-to-office policies. A McKinsey study showed that 10% of workers would quit their jobs if required to work in-person full time. These same employees would also trade more than 20% of their compensation to work remotely.

The picture becomes even more clear when observing some of the most essential categories of talent. A Conference Board survey found a clear relationship between a preference for remote work and age—the youngest workers are the most positive about remote options. As companies compete for new talent, it is essential to stay attractive to those employees who have come up in a remote environment. Standing out as a remote-first company in a varied environment has proved highly valuable; Blackbaud’s applications have risen by 50% since we first went remote.

Of course there are certain ways in which organizations need to adapt in order to make remote work, work. Training in a remote environment is different from training in-person. We’ve found that lengthening the onboarding process from two days to three months has helped us maintain quality and ensure our new hires are up to speed even as they are expected to learn more independently. We’ve also created group cohorts and have occasional regional gatherings for employees to spend some time together in person. Managers also need to be trained in how to keep employees engaged using different tools, strategies, and approaches that cater specifically to a remote environment.

A world class company culture also requires purposeful attention when teams aren’t interacting in person every day. While the team model is helpful in building relationships and connectivity among those who work together most closely, companies should also create opportunities for broader swathes of their workforces to interact occasionally. Volunteer opportunities, learning sessions, leadership town halls, and company offsites are all good touchpoints that companies can establish to ensure that culture thrives even with distributed work.

There is no going back to a world where in-person work is the only model executives should entertain. Rather than struggle to get an unwilling workforce back to the office, businesses should be looking for ways to adapt and see if remote-first can work for them over the long-term.

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Mike Gianoni is president, CEO, and vice chairman of Blackbaud. More

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