Financial services giant USAA told employees last week that it was moving to a three-day in-office hybrid work schedule, reports the Wall Street Journal, becoming yet another company requiring employees to work in the office several times a week.

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And while a three-day in-office hybrid work schedule is increasingly the norm for corporate America, some organizations, including The Walt Disney Company, rolled out a four-day in-office hybrid schedule this month, according to CNBC; more than 2,300 corporate employees have signed a petition urging leadership to reconsider.

Is four days in the office the new compromise between a typical hybrid schedule and a full return to in-person work? 

According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Annual Report, a whopping 50% of industry leaders say their company already requires, or plans to require, full-time in-person work in 2023. That percentage is even higher in certain industries, such as manufacturing(55%), retail (54%) and consumer goods (53%).

Employers want their people back in the office for a number of reasons. 

These reasons include sitting on real estate that is largely unoccupied, missing out on frequent impromptu collaboration and idea-generating discussions, and wanting more in-person mentorship sessions, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice.  

Four-day hybrid work week in the near future?

Like Disney, some companies are considering raising the number of days in the office to four days a week, says Paul McDonald, senior executive director for talent solutions and business consulting at recruiting firm Robert Half. And the employers driving the increase in the number of days in-office, he says, are those that have embraced an “in-person with purpose” strategy. 

“Having a purpose is what’s leading the charge,” McDonald says. “What in-person with a purpose means is coming into the office to meet your team, go through training or some other purpose.” 

While some companies are eyeing a four-day in-office hybrid work schedule, many are reluctant to hit the go button due to the tight labor market, Kaplan says.

In some industry sectors, it may be more common to see employers requiring more in-office work, he notes. 

“Financial services was early in assisting people back into the office, so maybe we’ll see some notching up there,” Kaplan says.

But if companies go as far as pushing for five days a week in the office, regardless of industry sector, it’s likely to make it difficult for them to retain employees and attract job candidates, he warns.

Related: 5 ways to help your hybrid workforce succeed

How higher unemployment rates may impact hybrid work schedules 

If a recession kicks in and sends the unemployment rate to 5% or more from its historic low of 3.4% today, would employers feel more comfortable making a four-day in-office hybrid work schedule the norm?

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“It’s very difficult to say,” McDonald says, noting that many employers have made technology investments to facilitate remote work that they may not want to go under-utilized.

Additionally, remote work carries substantial weight with hybrid workers, to the point they would be willing to take a pay cut to be fully remote, according to a Robert Half survey of more than 2,500 U.S. adults.

For hybrid workers in the office at least one day a week, 32% would be willing to take a pay cut to work remotely full-time, the survey found. And for technology professionals, the figure was much higher at 47%; it was also popular among Gen Z (42%) and working parents (41%). The average pay cut they were willing to take was 18%. 

Besides pushback from employees and technology investments, employers may also be concerned about losing the ground they gained during the pandemic in building employee trust.  

For more than 20 years, employees have had an overall mistrust in companies, ranging from the financial crisis of 2008 back to the internet implosion in late 2000. But when the pandemic struck in 2020 and society went into lockdown, it shifted people’s attitudes about employers.

“COVID actually reinstituted much of that partnership. People didn’t trust the government, but they trusted their companies to give them the right information and look out for them and their families,” Kaplan says. “Companies did an incredible job becoming that beacon, or North Star. I think companies, to some extent, recognize that if they push too hard on coming back to the office more frequently they risk giving some of that trust back.”  

Ways to minimize pushback when ramping up in-office hybrid workdays

Two key best practices are required when instituting an increase in the number of in-office hybrid work days.

“You need to clearly articulate what’s in it for both the company and employee. That’s critical,” Kaplan says. 

Articulate the value of greater productivity and performance to the business with employees being in the office four days a week, which in turn could result in a higher share price, greater bonuses and absence of layoffs, he adds.  

Secondly, ensure senior leaders model the new hybrid work schedule. When they don’t, it can lead to failure in getting buy-in from the workforce, Kaplan advises.

“If their managers or leaders aren’t there, employees will see right through it and call out hypocrisy,” Kaplan warns.

Related: Hybrid work is presenting HR leaders with a major conundrum

Before moving to increase the number of in-office days, it’s critical to ask why it’s necessary and to consider the potential impact of the decision.

If the reason stems from sitting on empty real estate, it’ll send the message that leadership doesn’t care about the hearts and minds of employees, Kaplan says. And if it’s to keep the company’s culture intact, here’s something to keep in mind.

“Rarely have people embraced culture when they’re forced to do something,” Kaplan observes.

When making a decision to notch up an in-office hybrid work schedule, he notes, the best organizations have a CHRO who is in lockstep with the CEO and board of directors, and they have the data to justify the change.

“If the data is not there, one of the underlying tenets of being head of HR is to speak up and speak truth to power,” Kaplan says.

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