Return-to-Office Mandates: How to Lose Your Best Performers

Your organization’s highest-performing employees want executives to focus on outcomes and accountability, not office badge swipes.

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Recent return-to-office (RTO) mandates like those at UPS and Boeing have a simple message: Come back to the office five days a week. CEOs cite productivity as a core reason for these proclamations, even in the face of employee resistance. Many executives simply don’t trust that employees are as effective as possible when managers can’t see them at their desks.

But in a world of globally distributed teams, falling back on management-through-monitoring is falling back on the weakest form of management — and one that drives down employee engagement. There is mounting evidence that mandates don’t improve financial performance. Instead, they damage employee engagement and increase attrition, especially among high-performing employees and particularly those with caregiving responsibilities.

There is a better way forward, but it requires culture work at the top as well as deep within organizations, along with a significant upgrade in management philosophy. Too many organizational cultures use face time at the office as their metric for productivity. That’s not the best benchmark. Instead, focusing on outcomes while providing trust and flexibility about where and when to get work done allows individuals and organizations to thrive.

What’s Behind the RTO Drive

We’re four years past the start of the pandemic-driven shift toward flexible work. While the peak of remote work has passed for now, office utilization in the U.S. has been effectively flat. For the past year, it’s been hovering at 50% of pre-pandemic norms.

RTO pronouncements have come loud and clear from Amazon, Google, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and more. Some CEOs talk about the solidarity that office workers need to have with front-line workers, although Gallup research shows that a strong majority of front-line workers aren’t bothered by office worker flexibility. In fact, they want flexibility themselves, including a choice of which days to work, the option for four 10-hour days, and some flextime — in other words, equity, not equality. CEO concerns also seem a bit selective. As one chief human resources officer put it to me, “We don’t seem to be offering our factory workers access to the corporate jet.”

Wall Street pressures on CEOs are often closely tied to RTO pronouncements. In 2022 and 2023, you could draw correlations between pressure from activist investors and subsequent announcements of RTO mandates, particularly in the technology sector.



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Comment (1)
Shawna Unger
Well written, detailed and accurate.  We are seeing in our work that the echo chamber of CEOs making an all or nothing decision in this space to RTO 5 days a week are paying a price.