Transforming Workplaces: Navigating the Shift with Return-to-Office Policies

In the past few years, work had gotten remote but, now, they could see RTO ‘mandates’ as a way to gently encourage people to leave. If you look at the rise of the return-to-office (RTO) mandates for workers, and interpret it through the lens of who’s actually more productive remotely or in the office, another story emerges.

Exploring the Drive for Voluntary Turnover

HR software giant BambooHR surveyed 1,504 full-time employees across the US and found that some managers hoped RTO policies would encourage otherwise decent employees to quit so that their companies wouldn’t have to lay them off. Sounds like a sneaky way to thin the herd. Both of these new aspects of work – with their emphasis on efficiency and productivity – are apparently what corporate leaders have been dreaming of for decades.

Remote Work vs. In-Office: The Preference Divide

However, what adds to the controversy is that most respondents, i.e., 52 per cent, stated that they would want to work remotely rather than in the office – a preference that is the direct opposite to the RTO policies that many governments have forced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. What was the intention? If the goal was economic, did it achieve just that?

The Question of Productivity

One of the most common arguments for RTO policies is that they will boost productivity. This ignores what BambooHR found: that people working remotely still tend to put in the same proportion of their time into work, and may well just be working more – but still undermining the myth that in-office work boosts productivity.

RTO and its Unintended Consequences

The survey also provides insight into the costs of enforced RTO – it showed how many valued employees quit and how badly worker morale suffered. As high-profile companies have seen, there could be a lot to lose if you are found to have used RTO as a stealth way of whittling down your workforce. The recent demonstration that home workers feared they were going to be laid off more than those who still occupied offices just adds to the angst.

Finding the Balance: Personalizing RTO Strategies

However, in line with research on the negative consequences of RTO mandates, there was significant variability of results, and some respondents reported improved work product and improved professional networking upon returning to the office. This diversity demonstrated that there are individual and demographic differences that need to be kept in mind when establishing RTO policies, and by extension, that organisations need to show greater nuance and empathy when introducing such changes.

Conclusion: The Evolving Definition of HOME

With more of our lives unfolding in the professional space now happening virtually in the quietude of the domestic space, ‘home’ has become more of a site of production and professional possibility than ever before. And what emerges is a rationale for reimagining work and where (or how) it is done, and a reckoning with the broader demographics and preferences of the workforce.

About HOME

With that meaning, ‘home’ here goes beyond what we usually mean by that word, referring to a place of comfort and capability. We will need to think critically about the future of home if we are to create workplaces where employees are respected and enabled to thrive on their own terms in the post-pandemic world. To make this happen, we will have to figure out how to combine the flexibility of remote work with the collaborative aspects of in-office workplaces and create more diverse, adaptive and resilient work cultures.

Jun 11, 2024
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