The return to office movement is failing. Or at least, the implementation of it is.
There has been a healthy dose of RTO creep over the last month or so, with more and more businesses (including Amazon, AT&T, Google and Walt Disney Co.) demanding employees return to the office three or four days a week. So far the results have been, well, mixed.
Amazon’s mandate produced a mass walkout from its corporate staff, although it was later shrugged off by senior leadership. Google threatened to make office (in)attendance part of performance reviews, a tactic which has set tongues wagging internally. AT&T has been even more abrasive, stating that 60,000 of its workers must return to just nine “local” offices, leaving 9,000 forced to relocate – a plan so bluntly enforced it’s led to speculation that the RTO mandate is really a trojan horse for layoffs.
How such moves will shake out are anyone’s guess, but workplace observers and experts predict we may well be in for another period of mass talent movement, as people bounce around before finding companies that align better with their own work preferences.
The myriad of pressures leaders face, from wanting to have people fill their commercial real estate holdings, to fear that organizational cultures are eroding, to productivity falling and a lack of understanding about how to really make hybrid work, has meant that the RTO-mandate yo-yo has been swung repeatedly since 2021.
But while the motivations for wanting people back in the office, at least some of the time, are valid, stricter mandates won’t necessarily fix the underlying issues of why employees have resisted them in the first place, tighter labor market or not.
Here are some inconvenient truths about the mandate approach:
Productivity measures are falling short
If the RTO tug of war has highlighted any gnarly areas, one is that current productivity metrics suck.
Many senior leaders have therefore defaulted to the former “heyday” of pre-Covid times when most people worked five days in the office, and their physical presence was an indicator of job performance.
But this won’t solve the issue of falling productivity long term, say workplace observers. Butts in seats won’t actually provide the productivity hike companies desperately seek, said Phil Libin, co-founder of task management app Evernote and CEO of workplace video tool mmhmm. “If you’re worried about productivity, then you should measure productivity, hire and retain people that are productive, and terminate people who aren’t,” he said.
Let’s face it, it’s easier to measure whether someone is showing up to the office. “But I doubt taking this shortcut [to measuring real productivity] will work in the long term because it sets up all sorts of negative self-reinforcing cycles,” added Libin. “People who don’t want to do it, who are confident that they can get employment — your most productive people — will quit and work for places that don’t require it. And the people who are less secure in their own positions and their ability to get employment, will be forced to come back. But they’ll hold a grudge. Sure, you almost certainly can succeed and literally get more people back into an office. But is that better performance? I think it’s unlikely.”
There is also more emerging evidence to suggest that employee recognition leads to higher performance than location. A recent Gallup and Workhuman joint report, calculated that there is a direct correlation between employee recognition, increased productivity and decreased absenteeism.
One in four of its thousands of respondents across hundreds of organizations in different sectors said they felt recognized at work in the last nine months. If that figure was then doubled in the average company, it would lead to an estimated 9% improvement in productivity, equating to $91,989,474, and a 22% drop in absenteeism, equating to $3,244,416 in savings, according to the report.
Location can’t fix poor management
An RTO mandate could end up being a mere band-aid over the productivity bullet wound. Some workplace experts and even psychologists have stated that where we work has become almost an unhealthy obsession for some, with the location cited as the crux of whether a person produces quality work. The reality is more nuanced.
Many prefer to work together, on certain tasks, and complete others individually in quiet places. Others will be on the more extreme ends of the spectrum. And there is growing evidence to show that where we work is far less important than who is managing the teams.
Gallup’s analysis found that engagement has 3.8 times as much influence on employee stress as work location. So what people experience in their every day work — their feelings of involvement and enthusiasm — matters more in reducing stress than where they are sitting.
Leaders need to ask if poor remote work performance or poor hybrid work performance is a location problem or a management problem. “No location can fix poor management, and the office alone has no magic to create a great organizational culture,” Gallup researchers concluded.
Ed O’Boyle, global practice leader, Gallup, advises executive teams on workplace strategy and believes that fixating on location is also detrimental to businesses. “Focus should be on what are we doing for our customers? How are we growing business? We have completely lost track of that, and all we’re doing is navel gazing on how many [ID badge] scans we got from people being in the office,” he added.
Determining where a person does their work best, is part of any strong manager’s remit. Nothing (even AI) can compensate for the presence of a strong manager, added O’Boyle. But too often the strongest people managers are not promoted into managerial positions.
People are still quiet — and loud — quitting
While the press spotlight may have moved on from quiet quitting (thanks artificial intelligence), workers haven’t.
In fact, 59% of people are quiet quitting (or doing the bare minimum while watching the clock), according to Gallup’s latest Global Workforce report, published mid June. In the report, quiet quitters are referred to as “psychologically disconnected” from their employers. Meanwhile, 18% are actually “loud quitters” — employees who have had a total breakdown of trust with their employer and actively cause harm by undercutting goals and opposing the business’ leaders, according to the report. The remaining 23% are engaged and therefore dubbed “quiet thrivers.”
Such low engagement costs businesses big bucks. In fact, Gallup estimates that low engagement costs the global economy $8.8 trillion and accounts for 9% of global GDP, in its latest report.
And yet, quiet quitters are by no means a lost cause for businesses — they are simply waiting for some inspiration, encouragement and direction from leaders and managers, per Gallup’s analysis.
Rather than mandating, to truly entice employees to return to the office, employers should research what they have missed from being in the office environment, said Guy Beaudin, senior partner at leadership consulting firm RHR International and executive leadership consultant. “A sense of purpose is essential. Working remotely can make our work feel transactional, leading to a loss of meaning and potential disengagement. A mandate alone cannot address this issue. Instead, it is important to help employees reconnect with the impact their work has on clients,” he said.
People need ‘reasons not rules’
If companies were more clear about the reasons employees should return rather than enforcing attendance rules, they’d receive far less pushback, stressed O’Boyle.
There are a smattering of Gallup clients attempting to do just that: give their people reasons to be in the office, a little flexibility about how they get to the office and what they do while there. And it’s proving a win-win for both employer and employees, he said.
Unfortunately, this feels like an exception as the majority of organizations opt for the blunt mandate. “Leaders are legitimately concerned about their culture eroding, because people are not getting together in the natural ways that they did before we had all of this workplace flexibility,” said O’Boyle. “It is OK to create an expectation on them [employees]. But with that expectation should come a reason why. And I think leaders are stopping short on providing real reasons around it versus platitudes about it,” he added.
Many leaders have repeatedly cited their reasons for an enforced RTO: they believe culture, collaboration, mentorship, productivity, is better when people are together. Unfortunately, though, most still default to doing a bunch of video conferences throughout the day, as opposed to changing the schedule for that day, when in the office, stressed O’Boyle.
The (small number of) employers getting it right are those giving recognition for outcomes created as a result of being in the office, he added. They do so by assigning specific days — say a Tuesday — for teams to collaborate on joint projects to achieve specific goals. This could be a sales team and a marketing team getting together to plan a campaign around a fall product launch for instance.
“You actually have to start rethinking what it means to be in your office: How do you create energy? How do you create learning opportunities in your office? How you do those things is how you get people back in the office willingly as opposed to twisting their arm or putting it in performance evaluations,” O’Boyle added.