Why Return-To-Office Mandates Will Backfire

While some companies will succeed in getting people back to the office, there are many reasons why return-to-office mandates will ultimately backfire.
Why Return-To-Office Mandates Will Backfire

Many executives assumed we’d eventually get back to the “old normal,” with employees rushing back to their cubicles with big smiles on their faces. Instead, we’ve entered the new normal with workers feeling empowered to push back on return-to-office mandates. For example, after Amazon CEO Andy Jassy announced that employees would have to return to the office three days a week, Amazon tech workers drafted an internal memo urging executives to drop the mandate. And then there’s Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger, who announced he would require many of Disney’s corporate employees to return to the office four days a week. Over 2,000 of those workers signed a petition asking him to reconsider. Finally, Starbucks directed corporate employees to return to the office at least three days a week, saying it was time to “rebuild and revive the energy” of its headquarters and regional offices. The result? You guessed it—employee pushback.

Despite the return-to-office mandates, remote and hybrid work are here to stay. A Gallup survey found that eight in 10 people work hybrid or remotely, while only two in 10 are completely on-site. In fact, the data shows that just 6% of respondents want to work entirely on-site moving forward.

Some companies will succeed in getting people back to the office in the short term. But there are many reasons why return-to-office mandates will ultimately backfire.

Employees want flexibility

When people are given the option to experience flexible work, 87% of them take it. Those findings were highlighted in McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey. In another report from Future Forum, 95% of people surveyed want flexible hours, compared with 78% of workers who desire location flexibility. The survey also found that 72% of employees who weren’t satisfied with their level of flexibility would most likely look for a new job in the next 12 months.

Employees redefined their priorities

People not only prefer the flexibility of working from home, but their priorities have also changed. They appreciate not having a long commute and being able to pick up their kids from school or care for their ailing parents. They value the freedom so much that they are willing to make sacrifices to get it. In a survey of 3,500 workers commissioned by GoodHire, an employment screening service provider, 61% said they would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for being able to work from home permanently. Some of those surveyed even suggested they’d sacrifice up to 50% of their salary to do so.

Employees have more leverage than ever

Employees have more leverage than ever, which will continue for the foreseeable future. For one thing, the labor supply has shrunk. With a tight labor market, employers have difficulty finding people with the necessary skills, giving workers more bargaining power. In addition, employees are embracing non-linear career paths, which provides them with more options. And finally, employees have raised the bar regarding workplace expectations. They want to be seen, heard and recognized for their hard work. If they don’t get their needs met, they won’t hesitate to get them met elsewhere.

Employers are ignoring the data

Some employers are taking a hard-line approach when it comes to return-to-office mandates. But will it help to improve employee productivity and morale? The data supports the opposite viewpoint. According to the latest Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report, two-thirds (62%) of workers feel more productive when working remotely. The Future Forum study confirms this finding, with knowledge workers in remote or hybrid environments scoring higher on work-life balance, productivity and the ability to focus than their counterparts working in the office full-time. Those with full schedule flexibility had 29% higher productivity scores than employees without flexibility. In addition, remote and hybrid workers reported 4% higher productivity than their colleagues working on-site 100% of the time.

Employers stand to lose top talent

Workers have made it clear that they won’t hesitate to switch jobs to find the freedom and flexibility they crave. Unfortunately, that means employers stand to lose top talent. In a FlexJobs survey, 30% of respondents said they are considering quitting, while 25% quit their job in the last six months. Of those who had recently resigned, 68% didn’t even have another job lined up. Why the mass exodus? Forty-three percent left because they had no remote work options, while 41% said their employer didn’t allow flexible schedules.

Employers are limiting their talent pool

Another reason to offer remote and hybrid options is that it’s just good business. Why limit yourself when you can access top talent from all over the world? Not to mention the fact that you’ll attract a more diverse workforce. Take the example of individuals with disabilities. According to a study by the Economic Innovation Group, by mid-2022, the employment rate for people with disabilities rose to the highest in over a decade. The reason for the surge was remote work combined with a tight labor market.

Employers are already backtracking

As evidence that return-to-office mandates are failing, many employers are already backtracking. Look at Elon Musk. He initially insisted on a strict return-to-office approach, then later shut down his Seattle offices in favor of employees working remotely. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has also been a very outspoken critic of remote work. Yet, in his annual letter to shareholders, he admitted that working from home “will become more permanent in American business.” He estimates that about 40% of his employees will operate under a hybrid model.

Remote and hybrid work are here to stay. The question is whether corporate leaders will finally acknowledge that the workplace will never look like it did before. So, instead of devising arbitrary return-to-office mandates, ask your workforce what they want. You might be surprised to find that trust and communication will go a lot farther in benefiting the bottom line than fear-based leadership.

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