Return-to-Office Mandates Are a Big Mistake – Here’s Why

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Return-to-office (RTO) mandates may appear to be a good idea for enterprise leaders aiming to bring employees back into the office. But they could come at a significant cost.

The increase in the adoption of remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic has been an empowering shift for many employees. Working from home has provided people with the flexibility to work in their most productive environment, eliminated the commute, and given them more time to spend with their families.

However, more and more organizations are looking to force employees to return to the office over fears of productivity. Back in August, ResumeBuilder surveyed 1,000 enterprise decision-makers about their return-to-office (RTO) plans and found that 90% of companies will return to the office by 2024, with 28 stating they will threaten to fire employees who don’t comply with RTO policies.

While the move away from remote work is widespread, many employees have been vocal about their opposition to the mandates. For instance, a report produced by the Integrated Benefits Institute earlier this year shows that nearly half of workers say they’d quit over a full-time return-to-office mandate.

Another study conducted by Greenhouse Candidate Experience found that 76% of employees would actively seek a new job if their current employer got rid of flexible work options.

As it stands, these studies indicate that there is a significant disconnect between enterprise management and the majority of employees. Bridging the gap between these two groups is now critical for companies that want to maintain work-life balance and productivity.

Creating a Team of Quiet Quitters

Although some business leaders may want to turn back the clock, the reality is that a significant amount of employees aren’t going to be happy about giving up the freedom that remote or flexible working arrangements have provided them.

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Attempting to force these workers back into the office not only runs the risk of alienating existing employees but could also put off new talent. For example, a study released by Unispace found that not only did 42% of companies with return-to-office mandates witness a higher level of employee attrition than anticipated, but 29% were also struggling to recruit new employees.

Part of the reason for the resistance is that forced return-to-office mandates are often presented as if they will help improve employee productivity.

Though there is some evidence to support this argument (one study finds remote work is associated with 10% lower productivity), there is just as much evidence to the contrary, with other research suggesting that employees work longer hours at home than in the office.

In this sense, it’s still up for debate whether employees are more productive when working from home.

So, if there’s not a significant difference in productivity, why force employees to work in the office when it could adversely affect their work-life balance?

Organizations that attempt to compel workers to return to the office often emphasize productivity over employee wellness and work-life balance. This can create a situation where employees become less engaged and more resentful, leading them to perform only the bare minimum in their roles and potentially resort to a phenomenon known as “quiet quitting.”

What Can Be Done Instead?

The solution to this predicament lies in finding a balance between productivity and employee wellness. When face-to-face collaboration is essential for specific projects, office work becomes a necessity.

However, when tasks can be effectively accomplished from home, and employees prefer that arrangement, it should be considered and accommodated.

After all, while some extroverted employees thrive in an in-office environment, others who are more introverted may prefer working independently and on their own terms. Acknowledging and accommodating the individual needs of each employee by providing flexible working arrangements can significantly enhance overall engagement.

Organizations seeking a middle ground can explore hybrid working as a partial solution, allowing employees to work from home on some days and in the office on others. However, this approach may be more appropriate if a significant number of employees express a preference for fully remote work.

If an organization is determined to bring employees back to the office, the approach should focus on incentivizing employees rather than coercion. Ultimately, the key lies in creating a compelling workplace experience that attracts and retains employees.

There are no quick fixes to this situation, but there are some small steps that can be taken toward this goal.

For example, organizing weekly team breakfast or lunch events can provide opportunities for employees to socialize and build connections. Additionally, providing training days to teach them valuable new skills can contribute to making the workplace experience more engaging and fulfilling.

The Bottom Line

Today, for better or worse, where work takes place is now up for negotiation at the bargaining table. In the post-remote working era, company culture must move toward trusting employees to know how they work best and giving them the flexibility to accommodate those needs where possible, so long as their work is on point.

Enterprise leaders that don’t trust employees to perform at their home and highlight that with forced return-to-office mandates just highlight that they lack respect for employee work-life balance and risk damage to their employer brand.

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Tim Keary
Technology Specialist
Tim Keary
Technology Specialist

Tim Keary is a freelance technology writer and reporter covering AI, cybersecurity, and enterprise technology. Before joining Techopedia full-time in 2023, his work appeared on VentureBeat, Forbes Advisor, and other notable technology platforms, where he covered the latest trends and innovations in technology. He holds a Master’s degree in History from the University of Kent, where he learned of the value of breaking complex topics down into simple concepts. Outside of writing and conducting interviews, Tim produces music and trains in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).