“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.”
“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?”
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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