What do I mean?

I’ll never forget the summer of 2020. The first summer of the pandemic, the rise of remote work and corporate America FINALLY addressing systemic racism. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor inspired nationwide protests and a demand for accountability. 

Call me naive, but it felt like things were changing for the better. 

Corporate America jumped into action and spent time writing DEI statements promising to fight systemic racism and doubling down on how they would build inclusive environments for all. 

But now, more than 2 years later, how much has corporate America really changed?

Companies are demanding a return to office — proving inclusion is an afterthought. 

The office is a location many may love but, the reality is, it’s not inclusive for many groups, including these 3:

  • For women: since the pandemic started millions of women have left the workforce. The lack of childcare options and rising costs during the pandemic drove women (most commonly the primary caregiver) to leave the workforce.  Women historically earn less than men, so when faced with the decision of who remains working in different sex couples, men win out. 

As women re-enter the workforce, flexibility will be crucial for their ability to balance their work with their caregiving duties. Forcing a return to the office will continue to push women out of the workforce. 

  • For people of color:  I remember the first time I experienced a microaggression in the office. My first time was not my last and that is the reality for many people of color in the workplace and it’s worse for certain groups like black, latino and indegious people. In office culture can be exhausting for people of color as they navigate discriminatory behavior and the notion of what is “professional” and what isn’t. 

Studies have shown that for black men their sense of belonging increases with remote work AND they have less work related stress. It’s not hard to believe that it’s difficult to be openly racist on Zoom and emails when the receipts can be easily shared. 

Fun fact: Meta exceeded its diversity and inclusion goals and cited their remote jobs helped fuel that growth.  

  • For people with disabilities: 1 in 4 Americans live with a disability yet most offices are not designed to be friendly for those with disabilities. Those with learning or cognitive disabilities may experience challenges within office cultures when trying to do their best work in part because of rigid processes or workflows. The office just isn’t a safe space for those with disabilities. 

Not to mention, an estimated 500,000 Americans have left the workforce citing long haul COVID. The CDC estimates 1 in 13 US adults have longhaul COVID symptoms. 

After all those bold commitments about creating a more diverse and inclusive future, why are companies reverting to something that directly challenges that?

Well, there’s one thing that drives everything. 

So… why are companies demanding a return?

No one wants to go back to the office. As more companies begin pushing the “return to office”, employees are planning boycotts, signing petitions and flocking to social media to roast their employers. 

And guess what? I’m here for it. Sorry, not sorry. 

So, why are companies demanding a return to the office? Two words: the economy.

The commercial real estate market was rocked at the beginning of the pandemic when the world went remote. Today, companies with long leases or ownership of buildings have EXPENSIVE assets on their balance sheet — ones that could be sitting empty if their workforce remains remote. Woof. 


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Not to mention, commuting employees means money spent on gas, clothing and in local businesses near offices. That spending is a win for the economy, but a loss for employees who are combating rising inflation with no meaningful raise to their salaries. 

TL;DR the economy drives everything. BUT there’s another reason for the “return to office” push… 

Remote work can be really freaking hard! 

Similar to how some people build their entire personality around loving The Office, companies have built their entire employee experience around the office (physical location, not the show). 

When the pandemic hit and companies had to pivot to remote work, they had a crisis. How does their in-office experience translate to the remote world? 

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. 

People teams have spent the last two years helping companies define their remote culture, training managers on effectively managing remotely, revamping internal communications, and improving remote collaboration all while trying to ensure employee engagement stays high and goals are achieved. 

Sounds like a lot? It is. 

No wonder so many of you flocked to the I Hate it Here community!

4 tips for building a strong remote culture:

While I can’t suggest a fix for the economic side of the return to the office other than suggesting companies stop wasting money on leases, I do have a few tips on how People teams can ensure employee engagement stays strong even in the remote world:

  1. Define your culture and share it broadly: how do employees communicate, what are common working hours, how are the wins/losses celebrated, how do employees speak up, how do teams work together, what does the company value, and what is our north star?

Encourage teams to write their own version of this on how the team works together and what are standing meetings, etc. 

Incorporate all of this into your onboarding and cover it with every new hire! 

Pro tip: Never stop communicating company vision / direction. Your employees need this content! 

  1. Train your managers: middle line management has shown to have the greatest impact on employee engagement. No pressure or anything! But, most managers are promoted because they do a job well, not because they are great managers. Then they don’t get the proper training to be effective and now they are managing remotely. It’s the perfect storm.  

Build a curriculum for your managers that teaches them the most impactful skills needed to manage remotely. EQ, setting expectations and how to delegate tasks would be at the top of my list. 

  1. Plan creative inclusive events: take into consideration time zones, topics and also what you’re actually doing. We’re all sick of Zoom at this point but there’s so many types of events you can hold! You can open this up to your employees and ask them what they want or if they want to lead a session! My personal fave is game night. Love trivia! 

Reminder: Events that only happen after work and that revolve around drinking are not inclusive! 

  1. Plan for face to face time: being remote shouldn’t mean that employees never meet! I’d budget for at least 2 in-person events a year. I know in a time where companies are cutting costs, I’m telling you to spend $$. Trust me, it’s worth it! Advocate for that budget because it does WONDERS for employee engagement and connectedness. 

Pro tip: aim for cheaper cities to gather folks and build the cost in as part of your employee experience budget. 

For People leaders: The data doesn’t lie: Employees want the flexibility to work remotely. Don’t risk losing your talented employees by demanding they return to the office. Bonus: remote work is proving to be better for the environment. 
For job seekers: Add not remote friendly to the list of red flags for potential employers. Right after not having salary ranges on job postings.

Hebba Youssef
Hebba Youssef

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