Culture   //   April 29, 2024

Inside H&R Block’s return to office mandate reversal

H&R Block is blazing a trail in its return-to-office approach: the tax service giant has listened to its employees.

Unlike other major corporations that have issued top-down RTO mandates, H&R Block hasn’t shied away from changing its protocols, especially after finding how much the staff appreciated having a sense of flexibility.

The Kansas City-based company, which has around 70,000 employees, first highly encouraged its corporate workers to show up at an office Tuesday through Thursday back in March 2021. 

A COVID surge then forced the company to postpone the RTO push, and management went on to hire more remote corporate employees during that time. With a more dispersed employee base than it had before the pandemic, its senior leadership team realized sticking pre-pandemic expectations on its staff, around where they work, no longer made any sense.

“It’s been working for us,” said Tiffany Monroe, H&R Block’s chief people officer. “Even from a hiring perspective, half of our executive team are not living in Kansas City. To change that mandate doesn’t seem right because it’s working, because people are really happy, because people are really productive.”

WorkLife has written about the impact it can have when workers are mandated to report to the office but the same rules aren’t applied to executives. The result is that folks can feel frustrated and burnt out. 

About 33% of corporate employees have been hired remotely. For Kansas City only, about 9% of those located here work remotely. “People can live where they want to live,” said Monroe. Monroe said that their employee engagement survey between 2021 and 2024 showed that employee satisfaction has increased. 

"To change that mandate doesn’t seem right because it’s working, because people are really happy, because people are really productive.”
Tiffany Monroe, H&R Block’s chief people officer.

H&R Block’s decision to avoid an RTO mandate came directly from what employees shared with the executive team around why flexible work is important to them, Monroe told WorkLife. The company gets between 80,000 and 100,000 comments every year in its surveys, which includes comments on people’s true enjoyment of a hybrid workplace. In addition to that, the company has been performing really well over the past few years.

“With all the different ways of working, we wanted to make sure we were talking to our associates,” said Monroe. “Whether that was holding lunch and learns, video chats, or surveys, we just did a lot of communication to see how they were feeling, about workload and the separation of work and life. We were in constant communication with our employees. From the get-go, they appreciated the flexibility.”

That’s when the senior leadership team decided it just didn’t make sense, despite seeing other large companies including JPMorgan, Google and Bank of America stick to their guns with office attendance expectations.

Are they worried about how it might look to go back on an RTO mandate? Not really.

“We have no plan to go backward,” H&R Block’s CEO Jeff Jones told Fortune. “We’re taking steps that are one-way doors that you don’t reverse.”

Many of these companies argue that RTO mandates are necessary to bring people together more regularly, boost employee collaboration, and increase overall productivity. Many experts believe that’s a mistake.

“Amid several companies implementing return to office mandates over the last year, companies are falling into the trap of mistaking presence for performance,” said Luck Dookchitra, vp of people at Leapsome, who thinks H&R Block’s reversal of its RTO policy is a great way to show employees that their feedback is valued. “Employers should focus on the value their people bring, the goals they achieve, and the contributions they make – not whether they work from home or in the office.”

To do so, intentionality is key.

“It is absolutely possible and proven that you can prove high connected, high performing teams, even in hybrid and fully remote work as long as you’re intentional about it,” said Jennifer Dulski, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business who has been following RTO mandates closely. “Now leaders and teams need to build time into their schedules to build that connection and understand each other. Whether companies bring people to the office or don’t, the lesson that can come out of this is let’s be intentional about connection building, mentoring and growth, and collaboration.”

Once every quarter, H&R Block hosts “block parties,” where workers gather and have one-on-one meetings. According to Fortune, workers aren’t required to attend, but 550 people badged into the office for the most recent block party. By comparison, around 250 people badge in Tuesdays through Thursdays, the busiest days for in-office attendance. Specific corporate teams also host their own gatherings throughout the year. The executive team meets in person for at least two days per month.

That’s created a new sense of excitement when people do choose to come into the office, said Monroe. 

“It’s really great to see people, feel the energy in the building,” she added. “We have been really concerted in our effort to make being here matter. Make it something that our associates look forward to. I think if we weren’t as intentional about that, we probably wouldn’t have that same energy.”

Plus, having the option for people to still come in whenever they’d like is helpful. Monroe said that their biggest attendance day is generally Wednesdays.

“For example, a sales rep may find it energizing to be around other sales reps and might need more in-person office time than, maybe a developer who can work more independently from home,” said Dookchitra.

“Amid several companies implementing return to office mandates over the last year, companies are falling into the trap of mistaking presence for performance.”
Luck Dookchitra, vp of people at Leapsome.

Another driver for some companies that want people back in the office is simply about numbers: they are paying hefty costs in real estate.

“Don’t go running in your tuxedo,” said Dulski. “Just because you bought a tuxedo, you bought it for a purpose that is no longer holding true. So you don’t go running in it just because you spent that money on it. That’s sort of what forcing your employees back to the office is like just because you have to pay rent.”

Monroe said that while H&R Block doesn’t plan to get rid of its headquarters anytime soon, it has begun conversations about finding a tenant for part of the building.

“We know we’re not taking up the entire building anymore,” said Monroe. “We have great amenities like a gym on site, a cafeteria, a Starbucks, incredible meeting rooms. It’s a great space, so we are very open to whether there could be a tenant in the building. That’s something we just really started delving into.”

At first, after it announced people can keep working from home, Monroe found employees would ask in surveys or emails if the policy was going to change as they watched other big companies put in place their stricter protocols. Today, those emails are far and few between.

“Now I don’t get that anymore because I think people realize this is how we are going to work,” said Monroe. “We’ve tried to be really explicit about that.”