Are Return to Work Mandates Wise?

Some businesses are mandating that some or all employees return to the office. While the motives are understandable, there’s more to the story.

Lisa Morgan, Freelance Writer

July 10, 2024

5 Min Read
Return To Office written on yellow paper note pinned on cork board with white thumbtack,
Constantin Stanciu via Alamy Stock

More organizations enacted a return to office mandate because the board and the C-suite believe it’s in the company’s best interest. The cost of real estate is one factor, but not the only one. 

In this year’s annual US Internal Meetings Impact Report by event platform Cvent and market research and analytics company The Harris Poll, 90% of business leaders with hybrid workers say employees are increasingly seeking more options for interacting with colleagues and internal teams to take advantage of in-person networking. Half report the desire for in-person interactions could be partly attributed to employee fatigue from virtual meetings. In line with that nearly 4 in 5 are swapping frequent virtual meetings for less frequent in-person ones. The same number say that in-person meetings are “absolutely necessary” or “very important” within their companies. 

But is that what employees really want? Many experts say RTO mandates are being driven by at executive and board levels. 

“[T]he decision to mandate a return to the office is often driven by the C-suite, typically the CEO. While I understand the company’s perspective -- ranging from justifying real estate investments to the belief that employees are more productive in the office -- there are important employee considerations to take into account,” says Amanda Russo, founder and CEO at business operations consultancy Cornerstone Paradigm Consulting in an email interview.  “Some employees appreciate the routine of coming into the office, but many find they are more productive and less fatigued without the commute. They often report a better work-life balance, healthier eating habits, and more intentional interactions with colleagues on projects, team building, and personal relationships.” 

Related:Retaining High-Performers, Millennials as Return to Office Policies Evolve

The downside of a RTO mandate is that it can push employees back to a pre-COVID era feeling of being on a hamster wheel, struggling to keep up with life’s demands, which ultimately drives them to find a job that will allow them to maintain their work from home setup, she says. Employers who believe that physical presence in the office equates to increased productivity may be operating under a false assumption: Productivity is not merely about presence; it’s about engagement, motivation and effective leadership. 

In another recent survey, HR platform Bamboo HR found that although 32% of managers say the desire to track employees is the company’s main goal of having an RTO mandate, 22% admit their organizations don’t have any way to measure the mandate’s success. 

Related:6 Lessons Learned from the Big Return to Office Debate of 2023

Intended and Unintended Consequences of RTO 

The intended consequences of RTO mandates tend to focus on the organization’s expected benefits, such as higher employee productivity, a stronger corporate culture and greater camaraderie among workers. However, some employees refuse to comply.  

“[E]mployers in this market need to realize that they are the sellers and employees are the buyers. That reality means that employees have the most control, a fact that many business leaders continue to struggle with and accept,” says David Lewis, CEO of HR consulting firm OperationsInc in an email interview. “To that end, the mandate to return to the office often can be the catalyst for some employees to formally kick their search for a new employer into high gear. In an effort to bring people back to the office, usually with the goal of building morale and team, you wind up doing the exact opposite, creating resentment by many that they have to report somewhere to do something they have successfully been doing from their homes.” 

Bamboo HR’s survey also found that 28% of employees say they would leave their position if subjected to such mandates. However, nearly two in five organizations enacted layoffs in the last year because fewer employees than they expected quit because of the mandate.  A quarter of VPs and C-suite executives say they hoped for higher turnover rates. 

Related:Quick Study: Managing and Supporting Remote Work

According to Pamela Cohen, chief product officer at AI-powered analytics platform Aniline, return to work mandates disadvantage parents and caregivers who are trying to balance work and home life, minority groups and older workers who may face in-office biases and microaggressions, and introverts and highly-focused workers who may find office environments distracting or stressful. 

“If employees think their needs and preferences are consistently overlooked, they may seek employment elsewhere, where flexible working conditions are better accommodated,” says Cohen in an email interview. “A strict return to office mandate can signal a lack of flexibility in organizational policies, potentially making the company less attractive to prospective employees who value flexibility and inclusivity.” 

Organizational leaders may argue that RTO is essential for maintaining company culture and collaborative dynamics, but there’s also a perspective that such mandates serve as a form of micromanagement, equating physical presence with productivity. 

“Some leaders might have a traditional view of management and work dynamics, where seeing employees at their desks is reassuring and synonymous with productivity,” says Cohen. “It is clear from discussions within professional networks and industry observations that such policies can lead to dissatisfaction, reduced moral and even resignations among employees who feel their needs and work preferences are being ignored.” 

Similarly, Cheryl L. Mason, a TEDx speaker, author and CEO of Catalyst Leadership Management agrees. 

“In my situation where the parent organization suggested a return-to-work mandate, I assessed where it would be needed. While having a few employees return to work in person, the need for everyone would cause unnecessary stress,” says Mason in an email interview. “While having a few employees return to work in person [made sense], the need for everyone to return would cause unnecessary stress. My advice is to assess what is really needed for your organization to operate and then communicate and communicate more.” 

OperationsInc’s Lewis has a similar view. 

“Work to understand first why you want people in the office. Then focus on how to address your firm’s weaknesses when it comes to hybrid and remote work and address those,” says Lewis. “[C]arrot versus stick is the way to go. Poll your team and build a culture with their input, from the bottom up, versus dictating one from the top down.” 

About the Author(s)

Lisa Morgan

Freelance Writer

Lisa Morgan is a freelance writer who covers business and IT strategy and emerging technology for InformationWeek. She has contributed articles, reports, and other types of content to various publications and sites ranging from SD Times to the Economist Intelligent Unit. Frequent areas of coverage include big data, mobility, enterprise software, the cloud, software development, and emerging cultural issues affecting the C-suite.

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