Leaders Return to the Office

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipTeam Effectiveness
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Eric Sigurdson
January 01, 2022
4 min read
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipTeam Effectiveness
Executive Summary
Remote work for Senior Leaders is temporary. Even if hybrid work takes off, exec will be expected to report back-to-office.


I recently identified a near-perfect candidate for a senior-level position that one of our clients had been looking to fill for some time. The person had an impressive background, with experiences that would be welcomed in this new role and credentials that would be valuable to the larger senior leadership team. But there was one big problem: the candidate, who lived in another part of the country, had no interest in relocating and the company wasn’t willing to let the position be remote.

This “relocate vs. remote” dilemma is a unique one because, quite frankly, it didn’t exist to the same extent two years ago. Traditionally, an out-of-area candidate would have been more inclined to accept a relocation package rather than negotiate working remotely, especially for executive-level positions.

The pandemic has given rise to the concept of remote work, accelerated by the adoption of online collaboration and conferencing tools.  For some industries and certain positions, remote work may, in fact, become a new, viable long-term option that benefits both employees and employers. But, for some roles and companies, it just doesn’t make long-term sense.

Trends in Returning to the Office

Employees overwhelmingly prefer some flexibility when it comes to long-term remote work. A Harvard Business School survey found that more than 60 percent preferred a hybrid approach to work in the future, splitting their work weeks between office and remote work. Of those surveyed, less than 20 percent wanted to return to the office full-time.

But surveys capture the sentiment of the moment. And while some suggest that executives are evolving on their acceptance of long-term hybrid work, other surveys suggest that executives don’t like where the trend is heading. Consistently, executives have maintained that remote work has a bad effect on corporate culture.

Leaders will Return - Eventually

Either way, we’ve been hearing from many companies that they expect their senior business leaders, the ones who collaborate strategically on everything from product development to marketing campaigns to budget allocations, to report back to the office once things return to “normal.” Certainly, that is not a stand that any company should have to defend.

But it does create some sticky situations if the companies hired any remote-work leaders during the pandemic. As the workplace environment evolves in the coming years, these same companies could find themselves faced with setting a precedent for remote work exceptions or having someone in a strategic leadership role who now must choose between relocation or resignation.

I know I may seem like a bit of an outlier here but consider that, while many of our clients currently allow for hybrid work and do not require leaders to come into the office every day, Russell Reynolds Associates has recruited hundreds of leaders to new companies since the pandemic started and more that half required relocation..

A Forthcoming Separation Gap

Once the threat of the pandemic subsides enough for people to return to their offices in vast numbers, the separation gap between in-office leaders and remote leaders has the potential to become too much of a hindrance when it comes to strategic collaboration, planning and people management.

Recently, I came across a Harvard Business Review article written by a career coach offering some warning signs to workers who might have moved to a remote location during the pandemic, even with their company’s blessing. While it mostly applies to rank-and-file employees, there’s a message in there that senior leaders should also take in. Author Marlo Lyons wrote:

"It’s important to remember that your role is in service to your company. It was created to — and you were hired to — support and grow the business… It’s critical to look at your job through the lens of your role in supporting the company. It’s never personal. It’s just business.”

Strong leaders recognize that difficult decisions often must be made to benefit the company and its continued growth. A year ago, it may have made good business sense to fill a business-critical leadership role with a strong candidate from out of the area who could jump right in and not worry about lost time due to relocation.

Certainly, the pandemic was a game-changer for companies across all sectors, and it may still be some time before we’re back to anything remotely resembling the pre-pandemic days. But while some may say remote work is here to stay, leaders and executives would be wise to recognize that even in a post-pandemic world, there are some companies, some industries and some positions that will not be receptive to remote work.