- Office utilization is steadily increasing in 2023.
- Company mandates play a role, but so do employee-led factors, such as wanting to increase visibility.
- Increased RTO brings with it a need to understand how the office is being utilized so it can be optimized for better productivity and employee experience.
Return-to-office is on an upward trend in 2023. In March, data from Density customers showed that office utilization was up 50% compared to the same time last year. Part of the increase in RTO is due to many top companies, such as Google, Disney, and Salesforce, mandating that employees return to the office at least three days a week.
But that’s not the whole picture.
Our data shows a slow-but-steady climb in utilization among Density customers, and a mandated return-to-office isn’t a ubiquitous policy among those companies.
Many employees are coming back to the office because they want to.
Why RTO is increasing
Office utilization is an important metric to determine how well your space is performing, but it’s equally important to understand why employees use the office. Knowing what influences workers to return to the office can guide workplace policies, improve employee experience, and inform recruitment and retention strategies.
We explored four reasons behind this uptick in RTO. While the first is company-led, the other three highlight why employees may prefer to spend more time in the office.
1. Company mandates
Sticking with a remote policy can help companies slash costs by allowing them to downsize their real estate footprint. Given the significant savings potential, especially with the threat of a recession, why are leading companies choosing to enforce a return-to-office policy instead?
Some companies have found that employees who spend time in the office outperform their remote counterparts.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Meta’s data “suggests that engineers who either joined Meta in-person and then transferred to remote or remained in-person performed better on average than people who joined remotely.” It also showed that “engineers earlier in their career perform better on average when they work in-person with teammates at least three days a week.”
These findings suggest that in-person experiences provide important benefits that are difficult to replicate with remote work, such as building a sense of community, maintaining company culture, and collaborating more effectively.
Most companies that believe in the value of the office are adopting a hybrid model (3 days at the office and two days, remote for example).
This hybrid model provides the benefits of a physical office while still providing employees a certain level of flexibility.
Related reading: Combatting digital overload with in-office experiences.
2. To increase visibility
Remote and hybrid models are relatively new for many companies — some managers still have an unintentional “out of sight, out of mind” bias regarding employees working from home.
In Owl Labs’ 2022 State of Remote Work report, 60% of managers said they’re concerned that workers are less productive when working from home, even though statistics show the opposite is true.
This bias causes many managers to feel favorably toward workers that spend more time in the office and makes it easier to overlook remote employees’ contributions.
Remote workers are the most likely to be concerned about being laid off, according to a CNBC workforce survey. Other studies suggest remote workers fear being overlooked for promotions and career advancement.
As a result, many employees who aren’t required to work in the office but can, are choosing to spend more time there to to increase visibility.
Related reading: Hybrid work is making proximity bias worse. Here's what to do about that.
3. Better collaboration and socialization
Humans are inherently social. Our evolutionary need to interact with people can’t be ignored, and some employees are choosing to come into the office to improve collaboration and socialize with colleagues.
Tools like Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams make remote collaboration possible, but these digital experiences don’t compare to face-to-face collaboration. Our brains are wired for in-person interaction, and there’s no technological way to replicate this successfully.
Digital collaboration can get the work done, but it doesn’t build relationships and trust or encourage innovation like in-person work does. "The brain is a social organ, and we are more likely to be motivated and engaged when we feel a sense of connection and belonging with others,” David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, says.
Many employees recognize this, whether consciously or not, and prefer to collaborate with colleagues in the office.
Related reading: Designing workplaces that work with our brains.
4. Poor WFH experiences
Studies show that working from home can increase productivity and create the flexibility needed for a better work-life balance — for most employees. But for others, it can be isolating, distracting, and technologically challenging.
A Stanford study found that over 24% of employees working from home had to do so in a shared room, making it much harder to stay focused. The report also indicated that many WFH employees have spotty internet connections that can’t handle video calls, making it difficult to collaborate virtually and stay connected with colleagues. Employees that face these issues have better work experiences in the office and are likely contributors to the steady rise we’ve seen in RTO.
Related reading: Competing with work-from-home to foster in-office serendipity.
RTO creates opportunities for a better workplace
As more workers return to the office, understanding how your space performs will become increasingly important.
The upward RTO trend creates excellent opportunities for you to design intentional in-office experiences, such as mentorships and lunch-and-learns, that will strengthen the company brand, improve relationships and productivity, and make it clear to employees that coming into the office provides value.
This increase in utilization numbers also offers you the opportunity to to test new designs and programs. Do employees prefer collaborative spaces over dedicated workstations? Are Zoom-enabled meeting spaces more popular than their non-VC-enabled counterparts? Are each of your spaces performing as you expected?
Measuring metrics like utilization, occupancy, density and critical mass will help you unlock workplace ROI and design spaces employees will continue to return to.