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Office workers in the central business district of Sydney, Australia, on Feb. 24, 2021.MATTHEW ABBOTT/The New York Times News Service

Neil Desai is an executive in the technology sector and also serves on the board of directors of private sector, Crown and charitable organizations. He previously served in senior roles with the Canadian government.

Many leaders in the knowledge economy who saw incremental productivity growth and operational efficiencies early in the COVID-19 pandemic heralded the end of the office era as we know it. Some noted that white-collar work could be effectively done from a home office, cottage porch or beach resort without compromising organizational imperatives. Human-resource teams were believed to be unshackled by their head and remote offices and could recruit the best talent anywhere.

The pendulum has swung back hard: Financial institutions, law firms, governments and even tech companies, who were among the most ardent advocates of working from home, or even anywhere in some cases, are now using carrots, such as lunches, and sticks, including threats of limited upward mobility, to draw their team members back to the office of yesteryear.

However, like the radical shift to remote work that was thrust upon us as a result of a global pandemic, organizations are woefully underestimating the organizational investments required to successfully manage the realities of their return to their office and hybrid work forces.

The dynamics that led to this wild swing were foreseeable.

The rise of remote work has upended the job market. Leaders saw their global competitors hoarding strategic and technical talent, such as software developers and data scientists, which resulted in a sharp spike in salary demands and personal accommodations from this globally fluid cadre. Many other employers jumped on board and further exacerbated the overheated talent market.

Meanwhile, many new entrants to the work force and co-op students operated remotely, and they were provided organizational and team “onboardings” virtually. They had to schedule 15- and 30-minute “check-ins” to understand their actual role and tasks that would define their success. Many have become lost in the ensuing shuffle. This could be catastrophic for retaining top talent.

Now the push to return to the office has brought about other challenges. A hybrid model of two or three days in the office seems to be where most organizations are landing on their in-office or work-from-home policies.

Members of distributed teams in relatively close proximity to their company’s offices that subsequently became hybrid work environments have complained that they are commuting to offices simply to connect with their remote colleagues through a video-conferencing platform for much of the day. This undercuts the rationale for in-person connectivity to enable collaboration and innovation.

What’s more, with many companies having reduced their office space during the pandemic, teams that were wholly in office on a given day often have challenges finding an adequate space to meet to accommodate their intended collaboration. Some public- and private-sector organizations haven’t kept their digital infrastructure investments, such as high-speed WiFi, in line with their employee growth, limiting their in-office productivity.

These challenges could be worsened if employers follow through on their cost-cutting plans. Half of the large companies surveyed by real estate firm Knight Frank in 2023 reported they would reduce their office space by 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

We shouldn’t be surprised that “quiet quitting” and “side hustles” have become some of the most prevalent challenges for managers amid these remote and hybrid work dynamics. A report released last year by Gallup showed that 59 per cent of workers surveyed globally were quiet quitting. A whopping two-thirds of Canadians self-identified as participating in this phenomena with 28 per cent reporting having a side hustle, according to H&R Block.

The incremental productivity gains of existing employees working from home, at the peak of a global pandemic that was thought may cripple the global economy, and the savings from not renewing leases and no longer travelling for business, were an anomaly and not sustainable beyond this unprecedented period. They were not the foundations of a viable, long-term business case for organizational growth and stability.

Now, hauling all willing and able employees back to offices amid economic turbulence and widespread job cuts without a long-term plan as to how it will drive organizational imperatives is neglectful leadership.

Organizations are going to require thoughtful investments in policies, training, technology and infrastructure to maximize a wholly distributed or hybrid work force that many companies have been left with. It will require leaders to rethink decisions they made early in the pandemic, like remote hires.

Ultimately, if organizations are going to survive and potentially succeed amid the realities of this new work order, they will have to accept that the prepandemic office and the remote work of the pandemic is a false dichotomy. They will have to reimagine their organization and the pillars required to build the foundation for their next chapter.

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