Remote work

What executives are missing in their RTO mandates

Returning to the office can be valuable, but you have to make the case.
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· 3 min read

Some business leaders have been eager to get employees back into the office since they were forced to adopt remote work en masse in March of 2020. Those looking to succeed need to build a business case for coming back into the office.

For employees, having a taste of full-telework freedom means they generally don’t want to be told to go back. They report being just as productive or more productive and happier than before. Experts point out many opportunities for inclusion, equity, and environmental sustainability (commuting takes a toll) from the expansion of remote work.

After multiple waves of RTO starts and stops, the battle continues. The economic climate and widespread layoffs have changed the tone of the employer–employee relationship, and those advocating for working in an office have more evidence of its value.

A shift. JPMorgan Chase made one of the strongest recent pushes for office attendance, requiring its managing directors to come to the office five days a week. Many other companies, including Apple, Amazon, Google parent Alphabet, and Meta are moving in a similar direction.

In the glory days of the Great Resignation, many workers felt comfortable refusing to return because businesses were afraid of missing out on the growth opportunities in a booming economy. Today, leaders are expecting layoffs and a less-friendly job market to soften RTO revolts. Lyft’s CEO has said he sees an opportunity for “cultural reset” at this time, while recent RTO mandates at Disney, Amazon, Alphabet, and Meta come in the wake of significant layoffs.

“This has been an interesting experiment for the past three years,” Jo-Ellen Pozner, associate professor at Santa Clara’s Leavey School of Management, told HR Brew. “It seems to me that many folks were hoping just because there was a disruption that created change, that the change would be permanent. But it has never struck me as the appropriate response.”

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Still, if business leaders want to maintain a respectful and transparent culture and an engaged workforce, they need to make the case for RTO, and it can’t be rushed or based solely on a mandate from above.

“​​I think it’s necessary for them to present this in a positive light and with the right message,” Pozner said. “Part of the frustration that folks are having with these return-to-work mandates is that it feels like your parents grounding you…You’ve got to come back to work because we need to keep an eye on you.”

Make the case. Employees at Verkada, a Bay Area tech company, shared with the New York Times that they valued daily feedback, building relationships with colleagues, and exposure to senior leadership when they go into the office. Previous reporting has suggested that fully remote work negatively affects younger workers and that they may have an appetite for going in.

A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa, and Harvard that followed software engineers at a Fortune 500 firm concluded that remote work is a trade-off: It can lead to a short-term boost, particularly for senior employees, but junior employees and women are disproportionately affected.

“Proximity particularly increases feedback to female engineers and young engineers, who are more likely to quit the firm when proximity is lost,” the paper’s authors wrote. “However, sitting together reduces senior engineers’ programming output, suggesting a trade-off between short-term productivity and long-run human-capital development.”—AK

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

News built to help HR pros grow their impact & improve the future of work.