Hypocritical corporations should not force young workers back to the office

Microsoft boss Satya Nadella has spoken about the need for empathy and inclusivity in the workplace
Microsoft boss Satya Nadella has spoken about the need for empathy and inclusivity in the workplace

As the post-pandemic dust settles, many companies are rolling back the remote or hybrid models they brought in and asking their employees to return to the office. Disney’s chief executive Bob Iger cited “the ability to connect, observe and create with peers that comes from being physically together” as a key motive when he emailed staff earlier this year asking them to come back four days a week.

Amazon, Apple, Twitter and KPMG are also among the corporations positioning this controversial call as a logical step towards normality, but in reality, these mandates are draconian, fraught with hypocrisy and are ultimately a step backwards.

Since more flexible working policies have taken shape, people with disabilities have been enjoying unprecedented rates of employment. So in a corporate world focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), how can reverting to the limits of office working possibly make sense?

Weeks after my 27th birthday, I experienced a breakdown. I was so unwell that even popping out for fresh air was an insurmountable challenge. Travelling anywhere would have been impossible, which would have spelled the end of my career, had it not been early 2020. The nation was in lockdown and I was working from home.

It feels strange to acknowledge having benefited from a terrible global event, but in truth, the pandemic normalised remote working. And for me and millions of others, that was a blessing. Zoom meetings became standard practice overnight, meaning I could engage with colleagues, clients or investors from the comfort of my home, before resuming my battle to make it through the day.

Three years on, as the world recovers from Covid-19, my health has also improved, but not everyone is that lucky. Approximately 135 million people in Europe and Central Asia are living with a mental or physical impairment, according to the World Health Organisation. Globally, it’s 1.3 billion - 16% of the world's population. My experience helped me see that flexible working is not a ‘perk’ or a ‘nice-to-have’. For huge numbers of people, access to remote work is synonymous with access to work - a fundamental human right.

The push for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the workplace dates back to the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, though it wasn’t until the nineties that corporations began to take an active role in promoting diversity in their workplaces. It’s been a work in progress ever since, with the Black Lives Matter protests bringing a renewed focus on equity in the workplace in recent years, leading many companies to publicly address systemic racism and commit to taking action.

Business leaders aren’t shying away on the topic of DEI. Salesforce co-founder, chief executive and chair Marc Benioff has been a vocal advocate for equal pay and gender equity, pledging to close the company's gender pay gap, while Microsoft boss Satya Nadella has spoken about the need for empathy and inclusivity and has launched initiatives to increase diversity within the company. The corporate world finally seems to care about social issues, suggesting we’ve entered a new era of work for historically marginalised groups.

But where is this compassion when it comes to people with mental or physical impairments? What about their needs - and those of future generations - if we roll back remote working options?

It’s an uncomplicated equation: more remote work means greater inclusion, while limiting flexibility will push people out of the workforce. How can corporations turn a blind eye to this reality one moment, while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with social activists the next? Anyone familiar with the trend of corporate greenwashing won’t be surprised by this hypocrisy, but we should still feel alarmed by it. Millions of lives will be made significantly worse by return-to-office mandates. So what could justify it?

The fear of decreased productivity is often cited as the main reason for companies insisting on a return-to-office mandate, but it’s a weak argument. There’s an abundance of research, including a comprehensive study of 16,000 workers by Stanford University, showing that remote workers tend to be more productive than their in-office counterparts. And in any case, it is unethical to justify blocking people with disabilities from employment for the sake of an unfounded concern over productivity.

Another common concern is loneliness, but this comes from an assumption that remote working equates to isolated, lockdown-imposed homeworking. There are many possibilities for remote work that can help combat social isolation and loneliness, including coworking spaces, which our research suggests can be more socially fulfilling than traditional offices.

Other factors are likely at play here, from companies struggling to know what to do with their buildings to a deeper psychological objective: the need for control. For decades, managers have used office spaces to reinforce the feeling of control, power, and productivity. The shift away from traditional office spaces requires employers to step outside their comfort zone and embrace a dynamic and ever-evolving present. Unless they let go of preconceptions and surrender to this new reality, it becomes everyone else's problem.

As the world continues to evolve and adapt to new technologies and ways of living, we need to consider whether a mandatory return to the office is a step back. When the first dedicated office buildings were created centuries ago, the most popular mode of transportation was the stagecoach. In 2023 and beyond, surely there is a more sophisticated approach to workspaces, too?

While it's true that some jobs may always require in-person collaboration and face-to-face interactions, the past three years have demonstrated that many companies can organise their workforce in a far more inclusive way through remote working.

This begs the question: why are some companies so insistent on bringing their employees back to the office? For bosses who claim to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, forcing their employees to return to a traditional 9-5 could be seen as hypocritical and ultimately contributing to a less inclusive culture.

On the other hand, companies that embrace remote work can play a tangible role in forging a fairer society. A new generation of workers and consumers is emerging, one that is free from the entrenched mentalities of their parents and increasingly focused on the social impact of flexible working. As public awareness continues to mature, there is a strong business case to be made for being on the right side of history.

Ben Marks is the founder and executive director of the #WorkAnywhere Campaign, the global advocacy movement representing remote and hybrid workers