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The return-to-office battle will resume after Labor Day. Here’s how employers can bring back workers for good

August 31, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC
Woman waving hi to colleague in office
Here’s how employers can bring workers back for good.
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The fall will usher in lower temperatures, falling leaves, and for many workers in corporate America, the end of remote work as we know it. Several employers, including Apple, Comcast, and Peloton, are calling their employees back to the office post–Labor Day. 

This isn’t the first time many of these companies have asked that employees begin trickling back to the office come September. A number of employers prepared for a return to office in September 2021, but had those plans thwarted by the Delta COVID-19 variant and, later, by the Omicron variant. In the months since, employers have swung between pushing for a return to office and subsequently backing off of those mandates.

Predictably, employees, who have long resisted calls back to the office, haven’t suddenly had a change of heart, and they are once again protesting the latest return-to-work decrees. After Apple CEO Tim Cook informed corporate employees earlier this month that they must return to the tech giant’s Cupertino headquarters three days per week, employees created a petition, arguing that they have performed “exceptional work, flexibly, both outside and inside traditional office environments” and requesting that Apple leadership allow employees to devise flexible work arrangements with their direct managers.

This will likely not be the final return-to-office showdown between employees and corporate leaders, but it will certainly be closely watched as employees and employers jockey for who has the last word on return to work. But if employers want to emerge victorious, they’ll have to take a different approach, by providing employees transparency into return-to-office decisions, addressing employee hesitations, and making in-office work worthwhile. 

The great disconnect

The reason for employee pushback isn’t one-dimensional. From their perspective, they overhauled their work arrangements in March 2020 to accommodate their workplaces, setting up makeshift home offices and learning new technologies to communicate and connect remotely. Many did this while caring for children, parents, or other family members. Now, they’re asking for continued flexibility in return.

“Employees are now asking that their adaptability or agility over the last 2½ years not be forgotten,” says LaCinda Glover, a senior principal consultant at HR consulting firm Mercer. The sudden reversal from employers to bend the other way leaves a bad taste in workers’ mouths, regardless of how long companies have hinted at a return to the office. “Employees are saying, ‘Hey, wait a second. We want a voice, we want a say.’”

Ironically, many employers feel the same sense of entitlement after years spent catering to employees who demanded more flexibility and resources to prioritize their health and family during the pandemic, says Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Now employers are saying, ‘We’re in a post-pandemic world, and we’d like to meet you halfway.’ And [employees] are saying, ‘I don’t want to come at all. Come to me, do it on my terms.’ That’s not going over well.”

Though it might not go over well, employers may have to succumb to employee pressure to a degree. More than 50% of U.S. employees say the inability to work remotely or hybrid permanently is an employment deal breaker, according to Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Study, creating a major attrition risk for employers that could cost them as much as 50% to 250% of a single employee’s salary to replace.

“Good talent is hard to find. That will dictate…what employers are going to do,” says Nick, a content director at a Los Angeles–based apparel startup. Nick, who asked to be referred to by his first name, moved across the U.S. during the pandemic to be closer to family. In July, his employer informed colleagues that they’d need to return to the office up to three days per week or leave by the end of the year. Nick opted for the latter, along with many of his colleagues, and is looking for a new role before he has to leave in December. 

“If employers are seeing that X decision equals these results, and making this other decision is going to yield different results, they’re always going to go with the thing that makes better results,” Nick says, adding that motivation among colleagues who’ve remained has plummeted. “I don’t believe that unhappy employees who are forced to do something are going to make better profits for the company.”

Still, about half of employers say employees are fully complying with return-to-office mandates, according to Mercer’s July 2022 real-time insights survey. Another third say employees have complied to some extent, and 14% say only to a limited extent.

“The question is, will we fire them? Do we terminate them? Do we put them on probation?” asks Glover. “Right now, it’s still a really tight labor market. All of those choices could have pretty drastic consequences when it comes to being able to keep the number of people that they need to keep things moving.”

The last jobs report for June showed 10.7 million open jobs, meaning employees still have leverage and can find roles relatively easily that fit their desired work arrangement. But that could be changing, too.

“If the indicators are right that we’re globally slowing down—whether it’s formally a recession or not—then we’re going to shift to more of a buyer’s market,” says Taylor. “That means the leverage on the employer side is going to be bigger than ever before, and I think employees need to be mindful. This is not 2019; it’s not 2021. We’re now in 2023, and the dynamic is changing.”

Finding common ground

Transparency is key for employers who want a true return-to-office victory. Explaining leadership’s reasoning behind the back-to-office push can help employees feel less sidelined by the decision. 

Similarly, employers should ask employees to be transparent about why they want to stay remote and actively listen and take these considerations seriously. Employees with caregiving responsibilities, for instance, may worry about how a hybrid or full return to office will affect these duties. Through conversation and collaboration, employers can establish arrangements that address these concerns, like allowing employees to come into the office later in the day to accommodate day-care drop-offs.

“What HR professionals have an opportunity to do now is remind people about the need to meet in the middle, which seems to be a lost art in our society,” says Taylor. “We’re feeling that in the workplace.”

Employers must also make in-office days worthwhile, moving beyond perks like free lunches. Otherwise, employees will question the need to commute to work just to sit in cubicles and attend videoconferences. In-office days could be “heads in” and “heads together” days, says Glover, meaning team meetings and social networking are scheduled exclusively for these days. Employees’ work-from-home days could then be relegated to “head-down” work, focusing on individual tasks that don’t require companywide Zoom calls or much peer-to-peer interaction.

“If the employer dictates, ‘We are going to return to work,’ especially if they aren’t transparent about why, or there’s no good business rationale for why… employees are going to push back,” Glover says. “They want to work with an organization, not for one. That dictator, top-down approach doesn’t work right now.”

Regardless, some employers will remain rigid about their return-to-office plans and likely find themselves at an impasse with workers who also refuse to budge. In cases like these, employers will have to decide, and decide swiftly, whether to terminate employees who stay remote—and if the associated costs, from lost knowledge to lost productivity, are worth it. 

“[Employers] might be able to find people to fill the seat, but the question is, are they finding the right people?” says Glover. “It’s all about getting the right talent to make sure that you’re able to grow and be sustainable in the future. That right talent might not sit outside your door; that right talent might sit 300 miles away.”

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