The debate around return-to-office (RTO) policies is turning into a tug-of-war between leaders and employees, with HR sometimes in the middle acting as an honest broker.

At ENGAGE, we’re hearing two very different points of view on a regular basis – especially when it comes to what should happen on Mondays…

The senior leader view

We’re currently hearing an increasing number of concerns, particularly among CEOs, that the reluctance amongst employees to return to the office, even for only 2-3 days per week, is starting to create a number of issues for businesses.

These include: 

  • A lack of collaboration – working together across boundaries is starting to prove harder when everyone is highly remote
  • A resulting lack of innovation (some evidence suggests that the number of new ideas around products, service improvements and process efficiencies is starting to dwindle)
  • Less learning between colleagues, especially for younger or newer employees
  • Concerns about declining productivity (while employees self-report significantly higher productivity when working remotely, many C-suite executives are less convinced of the reality)
  • A desire to ensure face time with clients and customers is not restricted to the mid-week 
  • Concerns about “four-day weekends”, as employees are away from the office from Thursday through to Tuesday

As a result, many senior leaders want employees back in the office for the start of the week for “Mandatory Mondays”. With the aim of getting the week off to a productive and collaborative start amongst teams, ensuring work planning is set, and employees are clear on accountabilities for their actions over the week ahead.

The employee perspective

However, employees don’t share the views of senior leaders. In fact, they are demanding ever-increasing flexibility in their hybrid schedules.

According to a recent CIPD / YouGov poll, 83% of organisations now have hybrid working arrangements in place, and 62% now offer working from home on a regular or ad hoc basis. The same research shows that flexible working is most important to employees because they see it supporting their work-life balance (83%), making commutes more manageable (41%) and helping to save money (40%).

Our own research shows that demand for hybrid working is significantly stronger amongst younger employees, which may lead to potential implications for employers. Businesses will need to manage their Employee Value Propositions and employee experience for the long term if they want to be a talent magnet for the workforce of the future.

So why is the gap between leaders and employees so great?

Underlying causes and solutions

The biggest underlying cause seems to be the profound level of disagreement about critical aspects of remote working between managers and employees. 

For example, as Nicholas Bloom and his colleagues have pointed out in their Harvard Business Review research, managers believe working from home reduces productivity, while employees think it massively increases it.

Based on our many conversations with clients around this, we have created four tips on how to tackle this issue: 

  1.       Strike balance

Leaders need to grow their businesses and provide returns to shareholders, while employees have expectations around their working arrangements and what they want from the world of work. To achieve both ends, organisations need to strike a balance.

Rather than implementing strict policies, the firms with the highest success rates are creating organisation “guardrails” (such as organising hybrid working around “anchor days” where employees are expected to come into the office). These businesses are encouraging managers to have discussions at a local level with teams and team members to provide some flexibility.

  1.       Clearly communicate

As ever, clear communication and messaging around hybrid working is absolutely vital. For example, if leaders want to bring employees into the office on a certain day (such as a Monday), explaining the rationale for that move will be crucial in helping employees understand how it may help them, the business and its customers.

  1.       Use data to show the impact

Much of the debate on the Return To Office has been based on assumptions or self-reported views on the impact on productivity.

We find that the clients who are making the best progress are using an evidence-led approach to help them create a balance between the needs of leaders and employees. This is why it’s important to utilise organisational data to demonstrate the impact that RTO is having. Think about the data you can share on how your RTO approach is impacting productivity, retention of talent, and the ability to attract new talent, as this will go a long way.

  1.       Role model from the top

If senior leaders want to increase time in the office they do, of course, need to role model this behaviour from the top. As new McKinsey research reveals (reported in the Wall St Journal), despite young workers often getting the rap for spoiling return-to-office plans and championing a pro-remote culture, it’s actually often high-earning mid-to-senior-level employees who are staunch supporters of working from home. Time to lead from the front, surely?

As senior leaders and employees continue to clash, it’s clear that a balance needs to be struck. By using consistent messaging, harnessing data and establishing boundaries, organisations will be in a much better position to attract and retain talent.

If you’d like help adopting a more data-driven approach to hybrid optimization, get in touch with the ENGAGE team.