Return to Office Mandates & The Risk of Employee Turnover

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While many companies and decision-makers are contemplating the pros and cons of a return to traditional office work within the next few years, this shift is not without its consequences, particularly when it comes to the risk of employee turnover. So, what is the potential damage such a mandate could inflict on businesses’ employee retention efforts?

Should we stay or should we go?

Return-to-office (RTO) mandates have been a trending topic for many HR professionals over the last few months, particularly as we approach the fourth anniversary of the globally enforced lockdowns and settle deeper into hybrid and remote working practices.

While the initial shift to remote work was necessitated by health concerns, the unexpected benefits have impacted everyone. With newfound flexibility, reduced commute times, and the ability to tailor work environments to suit preferences, employees are reporting improvements in mental health and a reduction in cases of burnout and work-related stress.

So why the rush to return?

A recent survey of 1,325 CEOs across 11 countries by KPMG revealed that 60 percent of managers and business leaders are pro-RTO. While the return might not be exactly like the traditional nine-to-five on-site working, leaders claim that the reasons are primarily financial with office leases and other financial commitments driving the mandates.

The push for in-person working has manifested in coercive tactics by some business leaders including Amazon CEO Andy Jassy whose suggestion that those working remotely might jeopardise their chances of career advancement has prompted resignations from employees hired from remote locations during the pandemic. Speaking to his employees Jassy recently said: “It’s easier to learn, model, practice, and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues. It’s especially true for new people (and we’ve hired a lot of people in the pandemic), but it’s also true for people of all tenures at Amazon. When you’re in person, people tend to be more engaged, observant, and attuned to what’s happening in the meetings and the cultural clues being communicated.”

A 2022 Korn Ferry survey of 15,000 global executives revealed that two-thirds agreed that corporate culture accounts for more than 30% of their company’s market value with many stating that a strong culture can only be established and maintained “if everyone is — at least some of the time — occupying the same workplace.”

“Remote working was never intended to be a permanent solution,” explain co-authors of A Career Carol: A Tale of Professional Nightmares and How to Navigate Them, and former head of HR at BP LLP, Helmut Schuster, and Dr David Oxley, organisational leadership expert at BP LLP: “It’s a mistake to look at WFH/Hybrid working as one might an annual vacation policy, health benefit, or even pay review. How we work, whether we are physically proximate, indeed, whether we are in an open plan socially collaborative workspace or in cubicles, has a huge effect on an organisation’s ability to create kinship, fellowship, and a soul.”

So, what are the pros of keeping things remote?

While the leadership might be mandating the RTO, there is no doubt that people who have become accustomed to the flexibility and autonomy associated with remote work may find it challenging to re-adjust to the rigid structures of office life. According to research from LinkedIn, more than a third of UK workers have said they would quit their jobs if their employer demanded they return to the office full-time.

The figures revealed that six in 10 employees are looking to swap jobs this year but one in five would stay in their current role if they were able to continue working remotely or flexibly. The threat of losing valued employees is particularly significant in industries where talent retention is already fiercely competitive.

The ways people have learned to connect and work collaboratively have shown how effective remote and hybrid working can be and for many, remote working has been a life-changing opportunity, particularly working parents and carers, those providing eldercare and neurodiverse employees who have thrived in this more flexible environment. “When the right job design is performed by a person with the right skills…then remote working can be exceptionally effective,” agree Schuster and Oxley.

Let’s not forget mental health and wellbeing

The topic of RTO can’t be discussed without mentioning the unanticipated benefits of the remote work revolution on mental health and work-life balance. Employees have reported reduced stress levels, increased job satisfaction, and a better ability to juggle professional and personal responsibilities. The flexibility to balance work commitments with personal life has proven invaluable in contributing to increased employee morale and loyalty.

It is worth noting that the role of the employer in supporting these different modes of working cannot be overstated. While hybrid workers tend to report higher levels of job quality than those who can’t work from home for any part of their role, they also appear to face the biggest difficulties in balancing work and life, including work-life spillover and working longer working hours than they’d prefer.

“Supporting colleagues who may be struggling is a critical component of the pastoral care we expect really good employers to provide. It can be a lot harder to identify those who may need a little extra help when they are physically distant. Some businesses will find embracing hybrid working easier than others. There will be no one size fits all. Equally, some individuals will embrace remote working more easily than others,” add Schuster and Oxley.

But remote workers are less productive, right?

Contrary to the belief that working from home leads to diminished productivity, numerous studies have shown that remote and hybrid work models can be just as, if not more, productive than traditional office setups. Remote work allows employees to create a personalised and comfortable workspace, minimising distractions and fostering focused work. Moreover, the absence of daily commutes translates to additional time that employees can invest in work-related tasks or personal wellbeing. In fact, Forbes reported that 32% of hybrid workers state they would consider a pay cut to work remotely full-time.

When it comes to measuring productivity, especially in terms of time, remote workers often come out on top. Why? Because they tend to clock more hours at their desks than their in-office counterparts says Toby Kheng, Employee Experience (EX) specialist and founder of Freeformers. “Measuring productivity isn’t just about counting the hours worked on specific tasks though, it’s about figuring out what being productive means for your team and your workplace. You need to know what you’re looking for before evaluating whether productivity is better or worse as a result of returning to the office,” he adds.

How can organisations ensure productivity and a positive EX?

Kheng suggests that the biggest barrier to successful remote or hybrid working is the enforcement of a rigid mandate. Instead, he suggests organisations strive to create an environment where individuals have the autonomy to make choices that align with both their personal and professional needs: “It’s about fostering a culture of collaboration and open communication, ensuring that policies consider the diverse needs of employees and empower them, their teams and leaders to work together to design the correct routine. In doing so, organisations can navigate the complexities of remote and hybrid working with agility, empathy and personalisation,” he explains.

While the return to office mandates may be on the horizon for many companies, it is crucial to navigate this transition with a nuanced understanding of its potential impact on employee retention. Recognising the merits of remote and hybrid work models, including enhanced productivity, improved mental health, and greater work-life balance, is essential for organisations aiming to strike a balance between tradition and innovation. In doing so, businesses can not only mitigate the risk of employee turnover but also position themselves as forward-thinking leaders in a rapidly evolving work landscape.