Employees Forced to Return to the Office Quit–In Droves

“Doing time, that’s what going into the office to work feels to me.”


“Like I’m selling my freedom for a paycheck. The bars close behind me every morning.”

man in orange button up shirt sitting on the bunk bed
Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels.com

“Jim’s” employer didn’t want him to resign. “Could you interview him and find out if there’s anything we can do to keep him?”

It took less than three minutes to learn—his employer’s return to the office mandate had led him to quit.

Before the pandemic, Jim had made the best of his hour a day commute—played music, listened to audiobooks and podcasts. Because he enjoyed his work, liked his immediate manager and coworkers, he didn’t voice his concerns when his employer asked him to come into the office two days a week. He simply scheduled around it, lumping all client, manager, and coworker meetings into those two days.

But when his employer decided, for reasons of company culture and in-person collaboration, that all employees needed to work in the office full-time, he balked. Jim located an employer offering remote work and turned in his notice. “It’s not just the escalating gas prices or even the hours of my life I waste each week driving,” Jim said, “It’s the ease I find working from home and the trust I felt my employer had in me. I want to be able to work in casual clothes with my dogs at my feet and be present when my kids come home from school. I want the freedom to work seven hours one day and ten the next as long as I meet my manager’s objectives.”

After I turned in Jim’s exit interview. When the company’s three senior leaders called me, and said, “We’re committed to return to the office, but we don’t want to lose our best talent. What do you suggest?”

My answers weren’t what they expected. I challenged their assumptions and led with three questions:

Three questions every employer needs to answer before issuing a “return to the office” mandate

“How does dragging employees back into the office improve morale and employee motivation and engagement?”

“If requiring all employees return to the office results in losing your top performers, how does that improve productivity and bottom-line profits?”

“If you hire accountable employees who produce quality work that exceeds standards, what does it matter where they work?”

The facts

Here’s the research shows.

According to the career site Monster’s September 2022 survey, two-thirds of employees state they’ll quit if their employers require them to come into the office full-time, with 40% stating they may quit if required to come into the office even one day weekly, https://www.hrdive.com/news/monster-two-thirds-workers-would-quit-forced-back-to-office/632690/#:~:text=Two%2Dthirds%20of%20workers%20polled,per%20week%2C%20the%20findings%20showed.

The ADP Research Institute reports that employers risk losing two-thirds of their workforce if they force employees to return to the office full-time, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/will-employees-quit-if-they-are-forced-back-into-the-office.aspx.

Criteron Corporation’s 2022 research, https://www.hr.com/en/magazines/all_articles/a-lack-of-remote-work-options-may-be-causing-emplo_ld9xas9t.html, documents the link between turnover and on-site work mandates. While 41% of employers that allow employees to work remotely consider retention a major issue, that percentage escalates to 56% at employers that require employees to work primarily on-site.

According to the financial consultancy Clarify Capital’s survey of over 1000 remote works, 7 of 10 (68%) would rather look for a new job than return to the office, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/will-employees-quit-if-they-are-forced-back-into-the-office.aspx. McKinsey’s survey of 25,000 U.S. workers reported that when employees have the opportunity to work flexibly, 87 percent of them take it, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/real-estate/our-insights/americans-are-embracing-flexible-work-and-they-want-more-of-it.


What can employers do? They can consider allowing employees who prove themselves with consistent accountability and productivity to work from home. Remote work thus became a reward employees can earn. If managers supervise employees they can’t trust to work remotely, they can keep those employees on-site, rather than punishing accountable employees.

The three senior executives pushed back, “Remote workers have no loyalty. We create loyalty when we’re all together under one roof.”

I responded, “That’s not what employees say.” Physical proximity doesn’t create belonging—being valued does. Occupational health psychologist Dr. Erin Eatough reported after studying 2000 U.S. employees that those allowed to work in hybrid and remote work arrangements felt “more supported, more cared for, and had a greater sense of belonging” than their in-person counterparts, https://www.linkedin.com/business/talent/blog/talent-acquisition/why-forcing-workers-back-to-the-office-is-a-bad-idea. Gallup’s August 2022 study, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/397751/returning-office-current-preferred-future-state-remote-work.aspx, documents that employees able to work remotely but forced by mandates to return to the office demonstrate lower engagement.

Employers need to hear what employees are telling them before those employees turn in their resignations. Four out of every five employees value the ability to work where they want to more than traditional “company culture” events such as in-office interactions and holiday parties, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2023/01/27/future-of-work-part-2-stop-forcing-employees-back-to-the-office/?sh=7a184f083ad4. Could companies create virtual common areas, such as virtual breakrooms, as suggested in the “Future of Work” study? https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2023/01/27/future-of-work-part-2-stop-forcing-employees-back-to-the-office/?sh=7a184f083ad4.

I challenged the three senior executives with a final question:

What really creates company culture—isn’t it how you as an employer treat your employees, and the work environment you co-create with them?

If you’re an employer, leader, or manager in 2023, how do you answer the questions asked above?  

(c) 2023 Lynne Curry, author of Managing for Accountability, https://bit.ly/3T3vww8

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7 thoughts on “Employees Forced to Return to the Office Quit–In Droves

  1. I read articles on this subject nearly daily and one article will say basically what you’ve stated here, then the next will say quite the opposite- that remote employees are less productive and both sides cite studies to back up their claims. I feel like anyone can cherry pick the articles they want to support their position, it’d be nice to have a definitive answer. My own employer clawed everyone back to the office full time back in March. It didn’t affect me because I never did work from home, but a number of my co-workers are grumbling. We had one employee with significant health issues that would have benefitted from working from home full-time and they wouldn’t flex for her. She ended up quitting. My employer’s stated reasons for wanting everyone in office is that employees in the office are able to collaborate more effectively and it’s easier to train them in person. I think they are right about that. But the effect on morale is not good.

    1. Dee, I agree with you that there are articles on both sides of the issue. My own sense–is that employees like remote work and that some employees abuse the opportunity–the same employees who surf the Internet while on-site. I tried to include in the article that employees who work accountably deserve the opportunity, and agree employees who don’t demonstrate productivity need to earn the opportunity.

  2. It’s become evident that being able to work remotely at least part of the time is something employees value. They like the flexibility and they like not having to get all gussied up and coming into work just to make the boss happy. Not all workplaces are the same, and a number of businesses may need to have some employees in the office to handle some things that aren’t handled well off-line. At the same time, some meetings with customers may be better handled F2F, not on zoom or some other meeting online site. Other things may be handled as well or better virtually. Or hybrid meetings and trainings may be possible. “Think outside the box,” as they used to say! A balance can and should be struck.

  3. WOW! What a subject. And the controversy on it is still mixed, and getting more argumentative.
    But, wait! A blinding glimpse of the obvious just struck me. Almost all references to ‘working from/in/at the office’ feature the word “returning.” Almost all of the studies made – at least the insinuation to – current employees (current probably being mostly inclusive of ‘since the life-and-work changing’ COVID pandemic started) without really addressing ‘onboarding’ and ‘building that trust’ and ‘assessing the skills, abilities and other measures’ that employers might feel they need to turn folks loose with their materials and processes. There’s no evolution of the process here, just discussion of the ascerbic effects of the fallout from it’s implementation, exploitation and repercussions.
    It’s really ironic that something that is now at least three years old is still being talked about and studied as if it occurred within the past year or so. It’s as though it started last week in some cases. Or as if the entire workforce and employers haven’t been dealing with the outfall and residuals of this for over three years.
    Yes, the dynamic has changed. It has been demonstrated that, at least in some jobs, and with some employees, and under some circumstances working remotely – regardless if it’s from home or a Hawaiian beach – can work. And/but all too many people are assuming, and drawing that assumption to the conclusion that ‘they’ can do almost anything from almost anywhere and shouldn’t be challenged if they want to.
    Unfortunately, it can’t work that way that universally.
    Really, if this complete revision of work opportunities and rules had never totally exploded in our society, would this discussion even be occurring? The situation and opportunity might have come about. But it would have evolved a whole lot more slowly, and with more development, and more understanding and work policies.
    Most of today’s problems with this is that it blew up, got completely and loosely out of control – both from the employee and the employer sides – and now we’re dealing with the forensics and reconstruction. And some folks are not willing to tone down the rhetoric or the demands and negotiate to a mutual solution.
    Once again mankind is proving it doesn’t like to adjust to change unless it has more control of when and how it happens; and that just isn’t the way this fracas broke out.

    1. Terrific, thoughtful comment, Dan. And you’re right, although I believe employees (unless they have customer-facing jobs or work on equipment or in warehouses or other facilities) can work productively from anywhere, I believe the ones employers can trust to do so are accountable–and there are not enough of those. Still, I’d rather not punish those who can work accountably, and have work environments run by rules made for the lowest common denominator of employees.

      1. I fully agree with your reply.
        But I think the entire discussion/issue is lacking a full measure of onboarding, getting used to the company culture and the employers attitude, developing the knowledge of capabilities and application to duties, and trust.
        Too much discussion of this entire subject starts with the employee literally wanting to start day One remotely (or more under THEIR terms, rather than the employers), rather than ‘working up to it.’
        Again, the current situation evolved from an entirely different work situation. Three years ago, most of the employees were already ‘known producers’ and simply changed where they worked from. Now, other than those who have been with the company for a couple of years already, most want to walk in to the ‘new environment’ unquestioned, untested, untried, unproven…

        1. Yes! Agreed! In the longer version of the post I cut down for space (and this blog version is longer than what appeared in the ADN, I had two other sections. You’ve directly targeted the important one–employees should come aboard non-remote (though that might make hiring even more difficult) and EARN the right to work remotely. I also suggested that the senior managers, so often exempted from working remotely, actually return to work site for at least part of the week, as they’re customer-facing as well as are many front-line workers. Senior managers’ customers are their employees. I’m hoping, somehow, that employers/employees begin working together–and truly that our country do so as well. That’s a huge part of why I write:)

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