Why even hybrid RTO mandates are hurting overall job satisfaction

Though most companies have settled on return-to-office (RTO) policies now that COVID-19 is no longer considered a global health emergency, many continue to adjust their practices, often to the detriment of their workforce.

Several workforce surveys over the past three months have revealed that employees do not view mandated RTO policies favorably, even when hybrid, because the guidelines are often too rigid.

During the pandemic, employees became comfortable with flexible work arrangements. When people have the chance to work flexibly, 87% of them take it, according to a 2022 study by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

“Multiple studies confirm these types of [RTO] mandates reduce job satisfaction and employee retention without improving productivity or company performance,” said Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at management consultancy Culture Partners.

Faced with mandates to be in the office, many employees are doing the bare minimum to satisfy those requirements, simply showing up long enough to get credit for being there before returning home to work — a practice known as “coffee badging.”

To determine what stops people from coming into the office, workplace management software maker Robin Powered surveyed nearly 600 full-time employees at companies that had flexible work policies.

The survey revealed that RTO mandates are everywhere, but they aren’t sticking. Forty-five percent of those surveyed said their company’s mandates required them to be in the office at least four days a week, yet only 24% of them reported adhering to the policy.

Twenty-three percent of employees surveyed said they don’t feel motivated to come into the office. Many survey respondents said they felt they lost time due to a lack of resources, poor office design or complicated processes.

In fact, 46% of respondents said that the reason they don’t come into the office is because they believe they are more productive with their at-home work setup. When asked about why they don’t come into the office, respondents frequently cited reasons like feeling more productive at home (71%) and not having the right resources at their desk (76%).

At the same time, 76% of employees felt they would be more productive in the office if they had all the equipment they needed set up on their desk. And 89% of those surveyed indicated that they spend up to 20 minutes looking for the right equipment when they get to the office.

Robin Powered’s survey showed several other “barriers” to employee willingness to obey RTO mandates. The first two groups of barriers had to do with time, including time lost getting to the office and time lost once in the office. For the former, the complaints at the top of the list were:

  • Commute is too long 41%.
  • Gas prices are too high 32%.
  • Parking is too expensive 20%.

“A little more than 50% of respondents would need anywhere from $50 to $75 to make the trip into the office. We tried something similar at Robin and increased office attendance by 40% in one quarter,” Robin stated in its report.

Some survey respondents cited factors at home that prevent them from coming into the office, such as childcare costs and pets. Those concerns were some of the least cited barriers, despite 71% of respondents having children and 79% having pets at home.

In contrast to workers who felt RTO policies harmed their productivity, nearly three out of four respondents (73%) said that when they did return to their offices, they felt more connected to colleagues.

Other studies have indicated that remote work actually improves worker productivity. For example, a June 2023 survey published by found that slightly less than half (47%) of companies experienced higher productivity by remote employees.

According to a survey by freelance worker platform Upwork, one-third (32%) of hiring managers say productivity has increased since remote work policies were implemented, and 22.5% found that it decreased.

Another survey of 2,080 knowledge workers released in January by Gartner Research measured employee retention after mandated RTOs. On average, when companies forced workers back to the office, those workers’ intent to stay with the organization declined by 8%, according to Gartner.

“Mandated on-site requirements can carry very steep costs for talent attraction and retention,” said Catilin Duffy, a research director in Gartner’s HR practice. “This is especially true for high performers, women, and millennials — three employee segments who greatly value flexibility. Often, these costs far outweigh the moderate benefits to employee engagement and effort. We also found no benefit to performance.”

Among high-performing employees, their desire to stay with their employer dropped by 16%. And among millennials and women, plans to stay in their current role declined by 10% and 11%, respectively.

Gartner’s study followed research published in December by the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh; that study found RTO mandates don’t help an organization’s financial performances, and can make workers less satisfied with their jobs and work-life balance.

The UPenn study compared a sample of Standard & Poor’s 500 firms that had RTO mandates to those that appeared not to have such mandates. (The sample covered 457 firms and 4,455 quarterly observations between June 2019 and January 2023.)

The UPenn study found significant declines in employees’ ratings of overall job satisfaction, work-life balance, senior management, and corporate culture after a firm announced an RTO mandate.

“Also, we show that employees’ other ratings that are not closely related to RTO do not significantly change,” the study stated. “The RTO push is eyewash for investors to prove that drops in revenue and profitability aren’t a result of poor managerial decisions but the result of lazy workers sitting at home in their pajamas.”

Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.


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