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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Robinson Bruner

Return-to-Office Mandates: Will Workers or Employers Have the Final Say?

Updated: Nov 30, 2023


If you spend any time reading business news, you’ve likely seen articles about the return-to-office (RTO) movement—I can’t seem to open my news feed without seeing another story debating the subject. With headlines like “Nine Out Of 10 Companies Will Require Employees To Return To The Office” and “We're Now Finding Out The Damaging Results of The Mandated Return to Office — And It's Worse Than We Thought,” there seems to be a major disconnect between the two sides.

There is much debate as to what is best for businesses vs. workers. Employees enjoy the freedom of working from home and employers want a clearer picture of worker productivity. To add to the confusion, there are studies that seem to support both sides. Not having to commute gives employees a better work/life balance and many cite they are more productive at home. However, employers believe in-office work promotes collaboration and accountability. So, what are organizational leaders to do?

The Case for Returning to the Office

For those of us with experience working remotely, we know it is a challenge to recreate impromptu discussions or “water cooler talk” in a virtual environment. And it is certainly more difficult to establish a strong company culture with a widely distributed workforce. In fact, over 80% of corporate decision-makers interviewed by ResumeBuilder believe an RTO policy will improve revenue, company culture, and worker productivity.

Leaders may also feel there is a lack of accountability when employees are working from home since managers and co-workers are not around to monitor performance.

“Business leaders have given various reasons for their disdain for [remote work], arguing that collaboration, mentorship and employee engagement all suffer without the office. But the biggest disadvantage of remote work that employers cite is how difficult it is to observe and monitor employees…”

These concerns aren’t just being voiced by a small minority of traditional organizations; companies like Nike, Zoom, and Amazon are paving the way for RTO mandates. However, while most companies are taking a firm stance on getting employees back in the office, some leaders continue to see the benefits of completely remote or hybrid models.

Benefits of Remote or Hybrid Work

In an interview with Fortune, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston says he’d tell his peers this about enforcing RTO mandates: “Your employees have options,” and “They’re not resources to control.” When managing a remote workforce, Houston acknowledges that “You need a different social contract, and to let go of control… But if you trust people and treat them like adults, they’ll behave like adults. Trust over surveillance.”

That is such an important point because some employees may believe that a return to the office is purely to exert more oversight and control of workers. If employees feel micro-managed or sense a lack of trust from their leaders, it can negatively impact employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Another case for remote or hybrid work is Meta, another company that has implemented RTO mandates. The tech company’s return to the office has not gone as smoothly as anticipated. “They've been met [with] a lack of space and privacy, along with productivity challenges, after a sudden shift away from what were very pro-remote work policies.” After three years of adjusting employee expectations and physical workspaces to deal with the new remote work reality, suddenly returning to in-person work is sure to create confusion and shortcomings.

With so many cases of employees willing to quit instead of return to the office, it is clear that employees value the flexibility they discovered during the pandemic—and that matters. Going directly against what your employees want will likely lead to disengagement and resentment. However, you need to balance your own business needs for collaboration, productivity, and performance with employee sentiment.

Is Hybrid Work the Answer?

Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, said: “We have not yet figured out hybrid work.” That is probably true of a lot of organizations. But that doesn't mean companies should give up hope—we just need to keep working at it. Hybrid work will look different for different companies, and uniform policies are not the answer. Your employees are individuals and deserve to have some agency over how and where they work. That might sound scary, but it doesn’t have to be.

We’ve written before about leaders having emotional intelligence and understanding what motivates each of their employees—and that concept can be applied here. Have those open and honest discussions with your employees. Understand what they are looking for from their work arrangements. You may be surprised to find that many workers enjoy being in the office (full- or part-time) because they enjoy the collaboration and change of scenery. Different personalities value different things at work.

Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, asserts that hybrid work is a win-win-win for companies, employees, and society. Organizations see lower costs and increased productivity and profits while employees benefit from flexible schedules and reduced commutes (which is also a huge boon for the environment).

So, what is the answer? Well, unfortunately, that is probably going to vary between companies. You are going to have to do the work to determine what is best for your organization and your employees. Have you seen decreased or increased productivity during remote work? Are you listening to your workers—do they prefer office or remote work? Do you have the physical space and processes in place to bring people back into the office? Do you notice a lack of collaboration and innovation when workers aren’t in the office? Do you trust your employees?

If you need help assessing whether a in-office, remote, or hybrid model works best for your organization and employees, please don't hesitate to reach out to us at info@gladedsolutions.com.

We're excited to partner with you on this journey.

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