Leadership   //   May 8, 2023

Why focusing RTO plans around broad ‘collaboration’ goals is a mistake

Lately, more employers have begun to harden their return-to-office demands, whether on a full-time or hybrid basis.

But a lack of clarity remains around what successful hybrid working looks like. And with workforces more physically scattered than ever, RTO bullishness is causing animosity toward leadership from workers who don’t understand or agree with the changes.  

And for those who have relocated away from their employer’s physical office – a common pandemic-driven trend – being summoned back to the office is far from straightforward. Many have been caught out by employers not being transparent enough about their RTO plans, some execs believe.

“So many companies wouldn’t say if they were going to force people back to the office,” said Greg Galant, CEO of Muck Rack, a public relations management platform. This has caused stress for employees who have already moved away from their office, or for those who have been grappling with whether to move out of a city or closer to family if a company had adopted a flexible working policy, until now, he said. 

The tug-of-war between employees and employers over RTO mandates has been brewing for years. Apple and AT&T were among some of the first to experience backlash when staff were told to return to the office last summer. More recently, economic uncertainty, fears over dropping productivity, and real estate pressures, have fuelled other bosses to get firmer on RTO. Amazon, JP Morgan, Twitter and Walt Disney Co. are among those enforcing RTO policies (to varying degrees of success.) And amid ongoing waves of layoffs occurring across the U.S., some bosses hope this will switch the pendulum of power back to the employer.

But, workers aren’t ready to back down. Making sure leaders clearly communicate and justify why they’re bringing employees back when making and announcing RTO decisions, so employees don’t view the moves as arbitrary, is key, experts say.

“It can feel like leaders don't really understand what employees are doing day to day, how they actually accomplish their work, and the context of their roles.”
Caitlin Duffy, research director, Gartner's HR practice.

Leaders should thoroughly understand and explain what activities they believe would derive value from being accomplished in an office versus what can be done remotely, and shy away from focusing RTO plans around broad goals like collaboration, Caitlin Duffy, Gartner’s HR research director said.

“It can feel like leaders don’t really understand what employees are doing day to day, how they actually accomplish their work, and the context of their roles,” she added.

The number of companies demanding employees return to office for five days a week is small. The bulk of companies (90% according to McKinsey) have gone for the best compromise on the table: hybrid working models. Trouble is, establishing a hybrid model that works for all, is tough. And most companies haven’t nailed it. Or worse, some have rowed back on having a remote or hybrid setup once a new hire has started.

“Companies are kind of stumbling into hybrid,” said Galant, whose firm went fully remote in 2021. “I think they just need to take a moment and really think through things, like how do you make hybrid work a success and do you even want to do it? Because it’s gonna be hard,” he said.

Micah Remley, CEO of hybrid workflow software Robin, agrees that “hybrid is hardest,” compared to going fully remote or in-office. “I think there has been a lack of intentionality in general,” he said. “What we’ve seen is that they [senior leaders] just didn’t make any decision at all [regarding return to office plans,]” he said.

How exactly to structure hybrid working arrangements remains a major kink, Remley said. Some companies are bringing employees back on set days, while others are making attendance optional. Much of that is being driven by the fact workers may no longer live near an office or have taken new roles away from their companies’ headquarters since the pandemic began. 

That’s what Apple employees said when they were expected back in the office for three days a week by early September 2022. In a letter to Apple’s executive team, employees wrote that “serendipity” ‘collaboration” and other goals of the RTO plans were unfeasible with so many employees across different offices and departments still working from different locations.

In other cases, mandates have been delayed because offices simply aren’t ready to accommodate full staff headcounts, like in Amazon’s case, reported by Insider.

Part of the challenge with hybrid working is that there is no set formula that works. Much of the success of hybrid comes down to how it’s executed by individual team managers. “I think a tug of war is a pretty good description for what’s happening now,” Brooke Weddle, a partner at management consultancy Mckinsey, said. 

Organizations are still trying to maintain flexibility, and many have created guidelines around new RTO policies, though let managers use their judgment to interpret them for individual teams, she said. 

But managers often don’t have the capabilities to do so effectively, and companies need to be “equipping managers to think about when work needs to be synchronous versus asynchronous,” she said.

“Where we see leading organizations doing better, is investing in those managers,” she said.

“Leaders should be willing to put up with whatever inconveniences you put the rest of your team through to do a return to work.”
Greg Galant, CEO of PR management platform Muck Rack.

There are other reasons for the growing sense of resentment towards leadership.

“I think return to office is hard because for a lot of companies, it puts them at a kind of adversarial position with their employees, and makes the leaders look out of touch,” Galant said. 

That’s especially true for leaders who have their own corner offices and higher salaries meaning they can afford to live in a metro area near an office. Whereas for many, the cost of commuting has become a burden at a time when living costs are rocketing and companies are dialing down benefits and bonuses in order to stabilize operations at a time of economic uncertainty.

“They’re [senior leaders] going back to a much more positive workspace experience than everyone else,” he said, and “leaders should be willing to “put up with whatever inconveniences you put the rest of your team through to do a return to work.”

There’s also a seasonality factor with return to office plans, Remley said. Many employers held off on rolling out such plans at the end of last year as December and January are typically slower times for businesses, so they began announcing plans in the spring.

Summer travels will likely hinder a smooth roll out in the coming months, though he expects employers bringing employees back to stand firm in their plans by September.