Companies Considering Employees Return to the Office

By:  Kim Adamson

As companies consider in-person return to the office mandates (“RTO”), reviewing business needs, legal concerns, employee retention, recruitment, engagement, and morale is essential.  Many companies are planning for employees’ RTO in 2024.  According to a KPMG 2023 CEO Outlook, 64% of CEOs expect a full RTO by 2026.  The issue of RTO is controversial with companies and employees.  A poll conducted by ResumeBuilder in August of 2023 indicates 81% of leaders believe RTO will improve the company’s revenue, 81% believe company culture will improve, and 83% expect employee productivity will increase.

Some RTO plans allow employees to continue flexible schedules, working from home one or two days a week.  Hybrid work is growing support from both employers and employees.  Many employees feel working in-office will allow them to be more productive and effective. In contrast, many other employees think differently about RTO, stating that working remotely and hybrid allows them better work/life balance while managing childcare and elder care and saving money on commuting costs.


  1. Outline the Goals Driving a Return-to-Office Decision
    • Clear communication is key to effective RTO. Be clear and upfront about both the expectations and the consequences.  Develop and provide a communication plan and timeline to employees.
    • Maintaining open lines of communication and listening to employees is key. Actively involving employees in decision-making processes, when possible, can foster a positive work environment and the successful implementation of mandatory RTO policies.
    • Consider core days and weeks for staff to be in the office. If the expectation is for employees to be back in the office at least three days a week, all management should also be back in the office at least three days a week.  Ensure leadership is leading by example.
  2. Recognize and Address the Risks and Concerns
    • Concern for remote or hybrid employees continues to be proximity bias, which is when we unconsciously favor whatever is closest in time and space. Leadership tends to treat employees in the office and physically close to them more favorably than those employees working remotely or hybrid.  Managers affected by proximity bias might view remote workers as less committed than their in-office counterparts.
    • Retention and recruitment concerns—RTO full-time may lead to dissatisfaction and increase the likelihood that some employees and job candidates will seek opportunities with other businesses.
    • Employee morale is essential to address and consider their concerns before implementing mandatory return-to-work policies. As noted in the media, some well-known companies have experienced pushback from their employees when attempting to enforce RTO.
  3. Consider Offering Employees Additional Benefits as Incentives to RTO
    • 87% of CEOs plan to reward employees who RTO with favorable assignments, raises, or promotions.
    • 72% of company leaders plan to encourage employees to RTO by offering commuting stipends.
    • 57% will offer childcare benefits, including providing on-site childcare services.
    • 64% will provide catered meals or host food trucks.
    • Some companies offer relocation benefits to ease the burden on employees and new hires who do not live near the workplace.
    • Prioritize workplace wellness programs and consider creating a wellness committee.
    • Make the office an inviting, collaborative space that employees enjoy working from when at the worksite.
    • Planning onsite or offsite charitable or team-building events to remind everyone of the positive energy of working in person with others toward a goal!
    • Flexible work hours to help accommodate employees’ commitments and balance in-person work and other responsibilities.
  4. Hybrid Work Arrangements

Employees are returning to the office with more remote work flexibility as many employers weigh the pros and cons of hybrid work arrangements and determine a balance that works for their business by allowing employees to work remotely a few days a week.  A 2023 Gallup poll of work locations for US employees with remote-capable jobs indicates that 29% are exclusively remote, 52% are hybrid, and 20% are in-person at the worksite.  Over half of remote-capable employees expect and prefer hybrid work.  Of the 125 million full-time workers in the US, 50% say they can do their jobs from home, 90% report they do not want to return to the office five days a week, 30% want to come in zero days, 60% want to go in two to four days, and 10% want to come in five days.  The data shows that spending two to three days in the office leads to the highest employee engagement and well-being levels and reduces burnout and intentions to leave the company.  Employees’ unique job responsibilities, as well as their team’s collaboration and customer service requirements, should be considered when determining hybrid work schedules.  The data also show virtual collaboration is less effective than in-person, and fully remote employees have a declining connection to mission and purpose.

As with any major shift in the employment relationship, data is an important consideration when making changes.  There are a number of organizations that have polling data from employers and employees to take into consideration when making this change:

In June 2023, SHRM surveyed 1,500 HR professionals about their company’s reasons for transitioning remote workers back to RTO in-person.  The main reasons for RTO are as follows:

  • 75% – Need for in-person collaboration and teamwork
  • 69% – Workplace culture and employee engagement considerations
  • 65% – Leadership preferences
  • 54% – Desire to restore a sense of normalcy and routine
  • 41% – Employee productivity concerns

A survey of 2,000 employees conducted by Owl Labs in June 2023 asked employees what they would do if no longer allowed to work remotely or hybrid, and the results are:

  • 29% – Expect a pay increase to make up for the additional costs
  • 24% – Start to look for another job that offers more flexibility in working location
  • 18% – Start to look for another job that provides more flexibility in working hours
  • 9% – Stay but be less happy
  • 9% – Stay but be less willing to go the extra mile
  • 7% – Would not mind returning to the office
  • 4% – Quit

According to the SHRM survey in June 2023, since returning to the office, 84% of male employees described their return to work in the office as positive, compared to only 62% of female employees.  Overall, employees who worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, stayed at the same company, and have since returned to the office, rated the transition as “somewhat to very positive” and provided the following feedback:

  • 22% – I am more effective at my job
  • 25% – I am more productive at my job
  • 24% – I have produced higher-quality output
  • 16% – I have more opportunities to collaborate
  • 20% – I am more engaged at work
  • 29% – I am more satisfied with my job

More than 50% of women want the ability to continue to work remotely and hybrid; provided it does not come with penalties affecting career advancement and earnings potential.  Flexible work arrangements continue to be a plus for women, particularly women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities and feel they have experienced an increased sense of belonging, greater psychological safety, and fewer microaggressions.

Millennials will comprise about 75% of the global workforce by 2025.  However, Gen Z is considered the future workforce since more will be joining the global workforce as they age.  Currently, 49% of Gen Zs and 45% of Millennials work remotely at least some time, while three-quarters say remote/hybrid is their preferred working mode.  The top reasons for remote/hybrid work are saving money, freeing up time to do other things they care about, spending more time with family, making getting work done easier, and positively impacting mental health.  One in five Gen Zs and Millennials say working remotely makes networking and forming connections with colleagues more challenging, 74% are concerned about missing out on a feeling of community, 14% say it limits overall career opportunities, and 41% are concerned about mentorship or sponsorship possibilities within the business.

The future of work is changing, but the people involved are still the same.  By understanding employees’ preferences, acknowledging the pros and cons of returning to the office, and addressing employee concerns through appropriate strategies, employers can facilitate a smooth transition back to in-person return to the office.