Survey Finds That Forcing Employees to Return to Office Disturbs Their Routines and Drains Their Bank Accounts

By: Alex Trent | Published: Feb 06, 2024

A recent survey from BetterUp shows the consequences for workers on mandatory return to in-person work directed by many of their employers. Remote roles have been declining at an increasing rate, with companies touting the benefits to their employees.

Companies have taken the mission to return workers to the office seriously, resorting to threats of disciplinary action for those who refuse. However, it’s unclear how these corporate demands are significantly benefiting anyone, workers and companies alike.

What the Survey Says

Researchers Christine Carter, Erin Eatough, Kristi Leimgruber, and Khoa Le Nguyen from Better Up Labs recently wrote a piece for Fortune. This piece talked about the results of their research into the effects of the great return to the office occurring in the current work environment.

A group of employees conducting a business meeting.

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The survey found that the number of remote roles has been reduced by half while one out of four organization survey respondents cited an improved culture as a reason behind their demand for workers to return to the office.


Lower Trust in Organizations

One of the significant consequences for companies is the finding that employees are taking a moral and productivity hit from these return-to-work demands.

A woman working on her laptop at a desk.

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“We surveyed 1,400 full-time U.S. employees who were mandated to return to in-office work and found that they had higher burnout, stress, and turnover intentions. They also had lower trust in their organization, engagement, and productivity levels,” they wrote.

Returning to the Office Is a Major Disruption

“Our research found that returning to an office often is a major disruption to one’s routine, foundational work, and overall life experience,” the researchers wrote. Their research results undercut the narrative by big companies that returning to the office is necessary to improve their work culture.

An office worker feeling down at his workstation.

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“Our results indicate that if the return-to-office transition is not handled with a high level of humanity, sensitivity, and empathy, workplace culture suffers, and the workforce’s sense of belonging plummets,” they wrote.

Some Benefits of Returning to the Office

The results of the research were not all negative for companies pushing for a return to to the office. In a collaborative research project with the University of California, BetterUp found that returning to the office helps increase life satisfaction and social connectedness.

A presentation for workers in an office meeting.

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However, these benefits only happen in ideal scenarios. If companies are inhumane with their workplace return demands, then those benefits go out the window.

Commuting to the Office Is a Challenge

The dreaded office commute turns out to be a significant driver of negative health outcomes. Gallup reported in 2023 that a commute only 30 minutes long is linked to higher levels of stress and anger among workers.

Workers driving on their daily commute.

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Commutes lasting 45 minutes or more show a correlation with poor well-being, mood, and overall health. The researchers from Betterup defined this issue as the primary challenge of return-to-work policies.


Workers Losing Flexibility

In addition to workers losing a significant amount of time in their day from the back-and-forth commute, workers are also losing out on opportunities in their lives. While a worker is at the office, they cannot have something delivered to their home, watch their children, or catch up on household chores.

An office employee working on multiple monitors.

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This is especially difficult since companies are not compensating workers for their time commuting or the time they are saving by being at home.


Remote Work Is a Net Gain for Companies

Companies have an impression that workers get distracted by things at home, which results in a net loss of productivity and work hours. However, research published in Nature contradicts this assumption. It turns out that when people work from home, they actually contribute more work hours to the company.

A man working on a laptop as the sun shines through his window.

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This seems to be a result of people having ready access to their work at all times of the day, making the barrier to start work lower since they don’t have to drive down to the office.


BetterUp’s Recommendation

Researchers at BetterUp suggest that a choice of work arrangement is the ideal outcome for workers and companies. When people get to choose whether they come to the office or stay remote they are more in control of their well-being, leading to better health and productivity outcomes.

A group of researchers looking at data.

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After people got a taste for remote work after the pandemic, companies can’t just put the genie back in the bottle so easily.


Office Workers Spend More Per Month

The BetterUp researchers found that an in-office worker is spending around $561 per month more than a remote worker. 

A collection of loose change resting on a dollar.

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Office workers need to coordinate child care if there is not a member of the household who can stay home. They also need to contend with gas prices and automobile repair as the miles pile up on their vehicle.


Workers Should Ask for Commuter Benefits

Hopefully, this research will be able to persuade companies that the risks of relying on remote workers are worth it overall. However, in the meantime, employees still have to deal with demands to return to the office.

A man diving into the city on his way to work.

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To offset their burdens, returning workers should stand strong in demanding compensation for complying with a return to work order. Companies may be forced to start providing commuter benefits, which is only fair since they are the ones demanding employees to be in the office.


The Future of Remote Work

The COVID-19 pandemic proved that remote work has a place in the world economy, and it’s unlikely that strong company efforts to quash the practice will work in the long run.

A student learning how to use a virtual reality headset.

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Some companies are thinking ahead with technologies like virtual reality, which can allow people to have direct social interactions while being miles away. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has invested over $100 billion in developing technology for their virtual reality “Metaverse.” (via The Guardian)