Return to office mandates can be divisive - here are three things business leaders can do to help smooth the transition

Return to office concept image showing workers entering an office building in a line.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Strict return to office (RTO) mandates have become a major flashpoint for organizations in recent months, but it doesn’t have to be this way, experts have told ITPro

Research from both Gartner and Randstad UK has highlighted the correlation between strict return to office mandates and employee satisfaction. Gartner’s research, released at the end of January, found that employee intent to stay among average employees was 8% lower with RTO mandates and 16% lower among high-performing employees. 

Meanwhile, Randstad UK found that, out of 2,000 surveyed employees, more than half (54%) of workers described the ability to work from home as “non-negotiable.” 

The argument on both sides can often be linked to productivity, but  is often conflicting. The National Bureau of Economic Research suggested that “Information Workers” were 18% less productive when working fully remote, while 59% of workers told RingCentral that they felt more productive in a remote setting. 

While businesses may want to push workers back into the office, they also need to avoid pushing workers away altogether.  

With staff vocally prioritizing a relaxed approach to RTO policies, then, businesses should ask themselves what a successful RTO process entails. 

“To prevent employee attrition, HR leaders should avoid rigid RTO mandates and instead seek to implement RTO strategies that maximize talent and business outcomes,” Garnter said.  

Return to office policies should motivate, not mandate 

Businesses should prioritize the rewards of in-office working, rather than threatening the punishments of remaining remote. 

Some businesses, such as Google, have opted for the former, with the tech giant introducing measures that would include office attendance levels as part of performance reviews. This came after a flurry of spats between Google and its staff over enforced RTO measures. 


Opting for the latter, on the other hand, could bring about huge benefits for employee satisfaction, according to Michael Doolin, CEO of Clover HR. Speaking to ITPro, Doolin said business leaders should help foster an environment in which firms don’t have to fight tooth and nail to enforce TRO policies. In doing this, staff will naturally warm to them. 

“Whilst it’s not unreasonable to expect employees to return to the office, it’s important to recognise that the environment has changed, and things may never return to the previous norm,” he said.

Doolin added that the office setting needs to be adapted. It needs to be optimized for the return of those who may feel discouraged by RTO, or those who have been fully remote for a long time. 

“This might even include things like preferred office layout,” he added. “Remember, a physical return can be difficult, so offering professional mental health support can ease the process. 

Staff need to be part of the policy conversation

RTO is far from a one-size fits all situation, and businesses need to respect that. 

Individual mandates need to work for individual employees. While companies at large have certain requirements, whether in the form of productivity projections or office guidelines, individual workers also have their own requirements. 

“Leaders are constantly navigating demands between the collective and the individual,” Emma O’Connor, director and head of HR training at Boyes Turner, told ITPro.  

“While managers are looking at what’s best for the business, employees are asking “How do I want to work?” she added. “The how, when, and where can become a point of conflict.” 

Each employee situation and each business is different, so flexibility makes sense on both sides of the equation. Decision makers need to pursue RTO policies which can be tailored as part of ongoing conversations between employee and employer.

“While it might be better for an employee with two school-aged kids to work from home, we find more Gen Z colleagues want to be in the office – for support, encouragement and mentoring as much as the social considerations,” O’Connor added.  

“There must be flexibility both ways.”

Employers need to be transparent about requirements

According to Gartner, organizations that transparently communicated their reasoning for wanting employees to return to the office saw “positive impacts on engagement, discretionary effort, and retention.”

Transparency is always key to motivation, though this is especially true in the case of a remote workforce which, up and until the implementation of an RTO mandate, will have had no reason to come back to the office. 

Providing these workers with clear, transparent reasons for returning to the office is vital if organizations want any sort of success with their RTO mandates. 

Microsoft, for example, pointed to its own research, suggesting that remote working policies led to a decrease in collaboration and community

The bottom line was, of course, that employees should head back into the office in order to reap the social benefits. 

George Fitzmaurice
Staff Writer

George Fitzmaurice is a staff writer at ITPro, ChannelPro, and CloudPro, with a particular interest in AI regulation, data legislation, and market development. After graduating from the University of Oxford with a degree in English Language and Literature, he undertook an internship at the New Statesman before starting at ITPro. Outside of the office, George is both an aspiring musician and an avid reader.