Most CEOs admit plans to reward staff who return to the office, study shows

But commentators say arguments over remote and in-office work are highly complex and unified policies could create problems

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Nearly nine in 10 CEOs say they will likely reward employees who come into the office with pay rises, promotions and favourable assignments, a new study has found.

The KPMG 2023 CEO Outlook report, which surveyed 1,325 CEOs across markets including the UK, the US and Japan, found that 87 per cent of chief executives were more inclined to recognise those who come into the office, with 64 per cent predicting a return to the office within the next three years. 

This figure appears to be at odds with what employees want: McKinsey data from last year suggested that, when offered, 87 per cent of employees would take up the opportunity to work flexibly, working at least part of their week remotely.

Caitlin Duffy, director of research in the Gartner HR practice, said that with many leaders planning to implement return-to-office policies in 2023 in response to a difficult macroeconomic outlook – 77 per cent of CEOs say rising interest rates and tightening monetary policies risk recession, according to KPMG – they could miss out on remote benefits.

She said: “A significant number [of CEOs] have concerns about culture, creativity and engagement in the hybrid workplace and believe that more onsite working will solve it.

“However, mandating an office-centric approach to working is a mistake and overlooks the numerous benefits of hybrid work. This includes greater opportunities for employee flexibility and rest, advantages for underrepresented and neurodiverse talent, opportunities to reduce overheads on physical premises and the important fact that many employees are significantly more productive and more engaged in a hybrid workplace.”

Nada Khaddage-Soboh, assistant professor at GBSB Global Business School, said that “failure to embrace remote or flexible work options carries the potential to disproportionately affect certain groups”, such as caregivers and the disabled.

“Thus, upholding the principles of diversity and inclusion necessitates the alignment of work policies with the needs of all employees and an impending concern in the discussion of returning to the office revolves around the possibility of creating a two-tier workforce,” she said.

However, Khaddage-Soboh added that employers were right to still hold concerns about the impact of remote work, with in-person collaboration better able to foster creativity and innovation, help backstop company culture and help with shared values and team cohesion.

CIPD research from the start of the pandemic found that some of the potential downsides of homeworking included work intensification, problems with knowledge sharing, social isolation, blurring of work-life boundaries and career stagnation.

And with arguments around remote work effectiveness ongoing – and a clear disconnect between what CEOs want and what employees prefer still unresolved – Martyna Śliwa, professor of business ethics at Durham University Business School, said a focus on mindset, compromise, smart use of technology and leadership training can play central roles. “Employers should appreciate the positive aspects of allowing employees to work away from the office but this can be balanced with the development of ‘compromise policies’ acceptable to all parties; eg ability to work away from the office for, say, 60 to 80 per cent of the time but an obligation to work from the office for a certain proportion of the time,” she said.

Khaddage-Soboh admitted that understanding whether in-office or remote work was best was a complex issue and likely required a flexible, individualised approach. “Employees and executives harbouring divergent perspectives means bridging the gap, necessitating open communication, flexible work policies, inclusivity and a steadfast commitment to diversity and equity,” she said.

“Organisations must acknowledge the diverse nature of the modern workforce, abandoning the outdated notion of a unified approach.”

Read the CIPD’s advice to people professionals on how to get the best out of hybrid working arrangements