Remote work

What HR should consider before mandating RTO

As companies create plans to call workers back to the office, HR leaders should contemplate these factors to help execs make the right call.
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Hannah Minn

· 5 min read

The days of awkward elevator small-talk and pungent-smelling microwaved lunches might seem like a distant memory to some, but as we ease out of a global pandemic, corporate execs and people leaders are continuing to explore RTO options.

Despite high-profile RTO mandates like Disney CEO Bob Iger’s earlier this month, and Wall Street executives like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon criticizing WFH, only 5% of US CEOs cite RTO as a priority this year, according to a recent Conference Board survey. That offers HR professionals the time and space they need to help execs make the right decisions when it comes to work arrangements.

Matthew Kahn, University of Southern California economist and author of Going Remote, suggests that while some industries are better suited for in-office work, the problem with RTO mandates is that they prioritize the quantity of in-person interactions over the quality.

“Why is going in five days a week optimal? If I go to work two days a week, but I’m in great spirits on those days, the quality of my face-to-face interactions can make it such that it’s not a big loss that I’m at home three days a week,” Khan told HR Brew.

There are no mandates for employees at financial services firm Synchrony. Employees are organized into “hubs” (Synchrony offices or other meeting spaces) where they can work or meet when it’s convenient or makes sense for the work, but it’s entirely up to employees. Tech and sales recruiting platform Hired went fully remote in March of 2020, and execs made the decision to stay remote in July of 2021.

Here are a few things that the people at these companies considered before deciding against RTO.

Flexibility is a valued perk. Synchrony made the decision to embrace flexibility less than a year after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic forced everyone to work from home. Rebekah Raimo, Synchrony’s SVP of HR and workplace strategy, said a combination of pulse and annual engagement surveys demonstrated that the “hub” strategy was valuable to the vast majority of its workforce.

“All of that is consistent across all levels of employees, all backgrounds of employees, and we have more than 18,000 employees, so it’s really become an approach that works for everyone,” she said.

It has affected recruitment, as well. Raimo said that hiring managers have been able to source candidates from outside specific cities or metro areas, expanding talent pools. She also said that interest in Synchrony’s open positions has increased by around 30% as a result of its flexibility policy.

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Samantha Friedman, Hired’s SVP of people strategy, said there was very little discussion about the move to remote as company execs understood the premium placed on flexibility, both by Hired employees and job-seekers: Only 33% of remote workers would trade WFH for a higher-paid in-office job, a 2022 Hired survey found.

And as a bonus, offering remote work can help companies retain employees for longer, saving money on recruiting and onboarding, she said.

Is there actual WFH productivity loss? While CEOs might miss face-to-face interactions, it’s important that companies review data to assess whether flexibility manifests in actual productivity loss, Friedman said.

At both Hired and Synchrony, it did not. When assessing productivity, Friedman said executives should ask, “What does success look like in this role?” She said that for the majority of roles, success was measured the same at home and the office.

The impact on inclusion. Remote work has been a boon for the careers of working parents and caretakers, people with disabilities, and those with painfully long commutes. RTO policies could endanger further professional opportunities for these groups of workers.

Friedman, for example, has become the mother of two children since the beginning of the pandemic. Working from home has given her the flexibility to take care of her children and HR responsibilities on her time. As companies consider RTO policies, she said it’s important to consider how they might impact workers’ lives.

“I think what [WFH has] done for women, I think what it’s done for moms, what it’s done for parents, and what it’s done for other workers. It’s just opened doors that might not have been open previously because someone couldn’t work the traditional nine-to-five,” Friedman said.

Test and learn. At Synchrony, the flexibility worked because C-suite execs were interested in a policy that met the needs of employees, Raimo said, pointing to a corporate culture of “test and learn.”

Kahn suggested that companies experiment with RTO on an employee subset before going all in to test its effect on productivity, engagement, and retention.

While they’re at it, they might also want to assess break-room smells and small-talk in common areas.—AD

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.