The return-to-office, or “RTO,” conversation is taking a more contentious turn in 2023’s final months as executives at some of the world’s most influential businesses speak up.
Amazon CEO Andy Jassy called out corporate employees of the e-commerce giant who did not comply with its requirement to report to the office three days per week, according to the Associated Press. Firms such as Goldman Sachs are reportedly taking a stronger stance on in-office attendance in recent months, while other leaders have made apparent their contempt for remote workers.
All of these developments come as the vast majority of companies in a recent Resume Builder survey said they would implement plans to get employees back to the office before the end of 2024, and most said they either currently track or plan to track in-person attendance.
Whether they take a flexible or firm approach to RTO, employers still need to be aware of the confluence of economic reality and worker sentiment, according to Roselyn Feinsod, principal, people advisory services at EY.
“We’re sitting at an interesting time where organizations are balancing cyclical and structural factors,” Feinsod said in an interview. “Labor markets have been quite resilient in most places, and you also have a new generation [of workers] that is not afraid to change jobs, define where and how they work, or demand flexibility on day one.”
Mistake #1: Taking an ‘all or nothing’ approach
Employers get off on the wrong foot when they require employees who have been working remotely to come back to the office immediately on a full-time basis or face discipline, said Chris Kayes, professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business. This approach can turn employees against organizations at a time when job satisfaction and engagement have largely declined.
“Even though the labor market has cooled off, I still think employees have the upper hand,” Kayes said. “Employers are trying to push this, but workers are willing to step out of jobs and employers aren’t ready for that.”
Instead, Kayes said he advises employers to consider a “slow step” back into on-site work. That could take the form of a flexible requirement that employees spend a certain number of days in office while allowing them time at home or off-site to take care of personal obligations, such as child care or elder care.
Setting up time for a transition back to the office is also critical because the way many employees work has changed, said Lina Tonk, chief marketing officer at isolved. Tonk said isolved employer clients that implemented their RTO policies at least one business quarter ahead of time — and laid out the reasoning behind those policies — were more likely to see success bringing workers back.
Mistake #2: Signaling you’ve lost trust in workers, managers
Rushed mandates that do not take into account employees’ productivity and accomplishments also risk destroying trust built between employees, their managers and the broader organization, Feinsod said.
“If that trust is not maintained, then you’ve really kind of lost it, and a whole set of things will cascade from it,” she continued.
Leaders, Feinsod said, need to balance both the “me” and “we” sides of the employment equation, particularly when it comes to work styles. Employees may prefer to work a certain way and have certain goals, but those elements need to contribute to overall business goals, too.
Managers play an important role in the RTO conversation, and how an organization handles in-office requirements may vary between individual teams and managers themselves, Feinsod said. Managerial decisions on RTO may be determined, for example, by whether a manager is co-located with his or her team, or by what forms of flexibility their direct reports need.
Still, RTO decisions should not be left entirely up to managers, Kayes noted, as differences in how and when teams require in-office work are likely to draw comparisons between worker groups, which can negatively affect morale.
“The more that leadership can set the tone for work flex and then allow managers some discretion … the more effective they’ll be in managing the workforce,” Kayes said.
Mistake #3: Thinking food, or premium office space, is enough
So far, employers have tried a variety of novel — if not eccentric — methods for incentivizing in-office attendance, ranging from the promise of in-person brainstorming sessions to free lunches to “drag bingo.”
But those approaches may miss the mark, not the least because the quality of an employer’s office space has little to do with whether employees decide to show up. A recent EY survey of more than 17,000 global employees found that even those working for employers with what EY termed “Class A” real estate showed no significant difference in preferred working location compared to their counterparts.
There are nonetheless elements of office design that could help employers optimize in-office time, Feinsod said. She added that dated design elements, like long hallways, closed doors and massive numbers of cubicles, are not likely to help foster a collaborative, connective atmosphere.
“Your space needs to be social,” Feinsod said. “People with a quality space will be less likely to quit.”
To that end, employers could rethink how they utilize certain areas within the office. For example, conference rooms can be made into pods for certain teams or business segments to operate in, Tonk said, and teams could reserve those spaces for certain days.
“It’s important to consider the way your office is laid out because of what you want to accomplish,” Tonk added. “Do you want employees to come in to collaborate? If so, is it laid out that way, or can it be?”
Additionally, in-person events can be a way to help offices feel more engaging and welcoming, but employers also need to be mindful that employees may feel anxious about returning, Tonk said. HR can survey employees about their concerns and incorporate this information into broader RTO plans.
Mistake #4: Mimicking other companies’ RTO plans
It may be natural for employers to follow the lead of larger organizations, but that is a potential mistake in its own right.
“Companies are just trying to mimic each other, and that is causing a lot of friction with employees,” Tonk said. “Many companies are just following suit instead of looking at themselves and at their business goals.”
An employer does not necessarily need to implement a three-day requirement just because that might work for a company like Google, Tonk said. Rather, the company’s commercial strategy should determine its approach. Potential factors for consideration include the organization’s real estate trends, and whether it is acquiring more space or downsizing, as well as the financial situation.