As hiring slows and economic concerns put pressure on businesses to boost productivity, return-to-office (RTO) mandates are rippling across the business world. In fact, an astounding 90% of companies are planning on introducing return-to-office policies by the end of this year.
With top companies like Amazon and Meta shifting to a hybrid workplace model and requiring partial on-site presence, other companies are closely following the evolving situation. Many businesses have the same desire to shift their workforces on-site, yet they are understandably concerned about backlash from employees.
Juggling corporate expectations with employee preferences for flexibility is a tricky balancing act — especially in the absence of conclusive data on the best approach. If your business is considering moving its remote workers back on-site, the best thing you can do is maintain a flexible mindset and learn from other companies that implemented new changes without scandals and backlash.
In this article, we’ll discuss the RTO phenomenon and what’s driving companies to get back to the office. We’ll also explore some proven best practices for moving workers back on-site successfully.
When businesses had to swiftly adjust to a remote model during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were surprised to see it had a minimal effect on employee productivity and work outcomes. On the contrary, global hourly output increased by 4.9% in 2020 — more than twice the average rate of the prior two decades and the fastest global growth rate ever observed.
Yet several years later, productivity has leveled out, and employers are ready to return to pre-COVID ways of life. Even companies that pledged to keep their workforces remote after the pandemic have backtracked, now mandating employees to return to the office. Companies are further emboldened to set these new mandates in a tough economy and the shrinking job market that gives them the upper hand.
But why the change of heart, especially if remote work was effective?
Here are some top reasons why company leaders are turning towards RTO mandates en masse:
1) Misalignment with business or industry needs
Even though many businesses have succeeded with the remote work model, others are just not well-suited to remote employment. For example, companies with heavy physical labor responsibilities, client interactions, or security and compliance requirements tend to experience more challenges with the remote model. This includes companies in the tech, finance, and manufacturing industries — companies like Goldman Sachs and Google that have already announced RTO mandates.
2) Productivity concerns
Research shows that 60% of managers feel their workers are less productive when working remotely.
As we will explore later on, it’s hard to know with certainty whether or not remote workers are truly less productive, as there’s a lot of opposing data. Yet what matters most is that from the perspective of most employers, employees have become less effective since going remote. Whether this is a hunch or a data-informed decision, companies are eager to return their workers to the office.
3) Inadequate remote work infrastructure
Many companies have learned the hard way that managing a remote workforce can bring with it unique challenges. Businesses need effective processes and software for tracking employee hours, managing and assigning projects, and maintaining effective communication. They also need managers who are skilled in navigating remote-friendly standard operating procedures.
Given these challenges, some companies are ready to simplify their operations by removing the burden of remote worker management.
4) Commercial real estate costs
High real estate costs are a powerful motivator to get employees back in the office, particularly for businesses in expensive areas like Silicon Valley and New York City. Companies want to feel that their real estate expenses are justified and would thus prefer to see a greater proportion of their workforce reaping the benefits of regular in-person interactions.
5) Security concerns
Protecting company data and confidential information is more complex when employees work remotely from various locations. Especially in industries saddled by heavy regulations, such as finance, it can be challenging and costly to enforce cybersecurity measures and data protection protocols across a scattered network of employees.
6) Declining employee engagement
Maintaining a sense of belonging and fostering strong social connections tends to be more challenging for remote workforces. In fact, recent research from Gallup found that “remote workers’ connection to the mission and purpose of their organizations has deteriorated to a record low.”
However, there are strategies for boosting engagement among remote workforces — and many companies have done so effectively.
Many employers today are concerned about the productivity levels of their remote workers, which is only exacerbated by mounting economic woes. According to a recent survey conducted by Slack, two in three business leaders feel “immense pressure” to boost their workers’ productivity.
Are return-to-office mandates really the answer, though? Should people go back to the office?
Whether remote workers are truly less productive or not is difficult to know for sure, as the data is very mixed. While pandemic-era data revealed high productivity levels across the board, more recent research has shown that remote workers may be less productive than initially thought.
However, if we look at the trajectory of productivity levels over the past couple of years, it actually starts to look like productivity levels have dropped precisely due to return-to-office mandates.
In an article in Fortune, CEO and author Gleb Tsipursky points out that “when companies started mandating a return to the office in early 2022, productivity dropped sharply in Q1 and Q2 of that year. Productivity recovered slightly in Q3 and Q4…but it never got back to the [COVID-era] period when remote-capable employees worked from home.”
With such a mixed bag of data, we don’t know with certainty that on-site workers perform better. Lacking definitive facts, many companies are taking the middle road and embracing the hybrid work model — requiring workers to appear on-site only for part of the week. This approach is popular with employers and employees alike for its ability to balance company preferences with worker expectations for flexibility.
Convincing a workforce that largely prefers remote work to once again work on-site is no easy feat — and if not approached sensitively, it can spur widespread dissatisfaction. While some companies have been able to seamlessly transition to hybrid or on-site models without repercussions, others have suffered severe consequences — such as:
Recent surveys and anecdotal evidence have revealed that many employees would rather jump ship and find a new remote employer when faced with the requirement to start working on-site again.
A survey by Unispace found that 42% of companies that have implemented RTO mandates experienced higher-than-normal employee attrition. Additionally, a Deloitte survey found that two-thirds of Wall Street financial executives would quit if they had to work in the office five days a week.
Not only do employers risk losing top talent to companies that embrace remote work, they also are likely to have a harder time attracting talent. Employees have gotten used to the perks of remote work, and many will now pass up on-site jobs for remote ones.
Research from The Flex Index reveals that fully flexible companies added jobs at a rate more than twice that of companies that required on-site presence full-time. Additionally, Unispace’s survey found that among companies that have forced a return to work, 29% are now struggling to recruit new staff.
As previously mentioned, productivity has sharply declined since its high during the pandemic — and at least some of this drop is likely attributable to the end of remote work.
Employees who are forced to return to the office against their wishes are likely to disengage and feel more unsatisfied at work, which directly leads to worse productivity. Additionally, while it may not be true across the board, some employees do indeed get more work done from the quiet and solitude of their home.
Have you determined that an RTO mandate is the right move for your company? If so, rest assured that there are things you can do to make the transition more seamless. By voicing your continued commitment to your employees’ happiness and offering incentives and perks that cater to their needs, you can make the return-to-office process that much easier. Here are five strategies to consider:
Before you even roll out your RTO mandate, it’s crucial to have an idea of how your employees might respond so you can be prepared to show empathy for their concerns.
Because remote work has such a transformative effect on people’s lives, it can evoke strong emotions. Whether it’s because they’re busy parents, live far from the office, or have had prior negative workplace experiences, many employees feel greater peace of mind when given the option to work from home. These workers have to feel heard and understood before they can even get on board with RTO.
Another thing to keep in mind is that certain departments and roles are much better suited to remote work and are likely to benefit more from remote arrangements. It may be a good idea to avoid a blanket RTO policy and instead consider the individual requirements of varied employees and teams.
Providing incentives to workers who return to the office is a great way to generate excitement and show your willingness to help employees adapt to new routines. For example, instituting commuting stipends, on-site child care, or free meals helps offset the reduced flexibility and additional costs accrued by a return to the office.
Fun perks like happy hours, concerns, and game nights are also a great way to generate positivity around a return to social interactions. Some companies have even started offering bonuses, cash rewards, and charitable pledges to employees returning to work in person. Use your creativity and find an incentive that your employees will appreciate!
Recent data shows that in most of the U.S., only about half of office visits last for at least six hours at a time — yet prior to the pandemic, 84% of visits lasted six hours or more. This means that even after the pandemic has subsided, many employees are coming and going on their terms. For example, many parents are now leaving work early for school pickup and logging back on later in the evening.
People found appreciation for work flexibility, and workers want to keep a hold on this greater level of control over their schedules. Giving your employees more flexibility shows that you trust them to get their work done and that you recognize their busy schedules.
Another flexible approach to consider is the hybrid model instead of a fully on-site requirement. The hybrid model has been found to boost employee satisfaction and wellbeing and even reduce company overhead costs — making it a much more appealing option for employees and employers alike.
Communication is key to a successful return-to-office plan. It’s important to ensure that your employees are fully aware of the reasons behind the mandate and that they feel that their wellbeing and best interests are central to the decision-making process. Prioritize ongoing and empathetic messaging that keeps employees informed and welcomes any feedback or concerns.
Transitioning to working on-site again can be stressful for employees. Use it as an opportunity to show your support for employee wellness and satisfaction, and consider implementing initiatives that improve the employee experience — for example, wellness programs, professional development opportunities, and rewards and recognition programs.
Introducing these initiatives will excite your employees about the return to work and assure them that their happiness is your priority.
Additionally, these programs have been found to increase employee retention and engagement — both of which are at risk of declining following an RTO mandate.
Companies are rushing to roll out return-to-office policies in a quest to improve workplace productivity and performance. However, it’s crucial to keep in mind that this isn’t the only way to boost productivity. In fact, employee recognition is one of the most researched-backed ways to improve worker productivity. Regularly providing praise and feedback to employees has been found to increase retention rates, employee satisfaction, and levels of engagement.
Whether you’re transitioning to a hybrid or fully on-site work model or looking for ways to help your remote employees feel more engaged, recognition is a powerful tool to consider. With the help of modern rewards and recognition platforms like WorkProud, you can effortlessly facilitate constant praise and feedback on or offsite — and even across a global workforce. If you’re interested in a free consultation or software demo, click here to reach out to a member of the WorkProud team!
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Every month, we share news, knowledge, and insight into what we believe is a pretty simple proposition: If you are “proud of your work and proud of your company,” you are more engaged, more productive, and more likely to stay with your company for the long haul.