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Resistance, attrition, quiet quitting, and a drop in diversity: Meet the Four Horsemen of the forced return to the office

January 10, 2023, 5:30 PM UTC
The financial sector has led the charge against remote work–but it's now suffering from high rates of attrition.
Jason Alden—Bloomberg/Getty Images

As increasing numbers of companies are requiring employees to return to the office for at least several days per week, they’re running into challenges with resistance, attrition, quiet quitting, and diversity–what one of my clients called the “Four Horsemen of the return to the office.”

These issues all stem from the fact that workers who are able to work remotely prefer to do so most or all of the time. An August Gallup survey of remote-capable workers shows that 34% of respondents want to work remotely full time, 60% want to work a flexible hybrid schedule, and only 6% want to work in a traditional office-centric setting. A June McKinsey survey of all workers, remote-capable and not, found that over half of all respondents want to work less than half the time in the office. And a September survey from the School of Politics and Economics at King’s College reported that 25% of respondents would quit if forced to return to the office full time.

Resistance

No wonder that workers facing return-to-office mandates show resistance, the first of the Four Horsemen. For example, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger has demanded that all employees return to the office at least four days a week The leadership of Apple has required its employees to come to the office three days a week. While Apple employees are not known for stirring trouble, in this case, 1,000 employees signed a petition requesting more flexibility. In September, GM announced that all salaried employees would have to return to the office three days a week. The message sparked intense employee backlash, leading to GM walking back its requirements and delaying any required return to the office to the following year.

In a September survey, Gartner found that only 3% of companies would fire noncompliant employees, and only 30% would have HR talk to those who don’t show up. No wonder that large U.S. banks trying to force employees back to the office are meeting with high rates of noncompliance of up to 50%. Many other employees are showing up for a part of the workday, from 10 a.m. to two p.m.

The Labor Day return-to-office mandates resulted in a rise in office occupancy in early September, reaching 47.5% during the week ending September 14 in 10 major cities tracked by Kastle Systems, a security access card provider. Yet office occupancy never rose higher than 50% for the rest of 2022–and ended the year at 48.2%.

Attrition

Given this resistance, some workers simply quit, joining the Great Resignation and making attrition the second of the Four Horsemen. That includes rank-and-file employees, as well as top executives such as Ian Goodfellow, who led machine learning at Apple. He quit in protest over Apple’s mandated return to office of three days a week.

A National Bureau of Economic Research paper about a study at Trip.com, one of the largest travel agencies in the world, is a case in point. It randomly assigned some engineers, marketing workers, and finance workers to work some of their time remotely and others in the same roles to full-time in-office work. Those who worked on a hybrid schedule had 35% better retention.

Even finance, the industry that is leading the charge for returning to the office, has suffered significant churn. European banks, which offer more flexible hybrid work policies, are using these to hire talented staff from the less-flexible U.S. banks. Smaller and more flexible financial planning firms are headhunting financial planners at larger and less flexible companies. Even bankers at the top banks, like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, are leaving due to the return-to-office requirements.

Quiet quitting

Perhaps even more dangerous than resistance and attrition, the third of the Four Horsemen, quiet quitting (employees psychologically disengaging from their work and doing just enough to get by without getting in trouble) rots a company’s culture from within.

A September 2022 survey by Gallup found that these quiet quitters make up about half of the U.S. workforce. Forcing employees to come to the office under the threat of discipline leads to disengagement, fear, and distrust, according to Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup. Indeed, Gallup found that if people are required to come to the office for more time than they prefer, “employees experience significantly lower engagement, significantly lower well-being, significantly higher intent to leave [and] significantly higher levels of burnout.” By contrast, employees feel gratitude to companies that give them more flexibility and show trust: as one such employee said, “if my company is going to come in and give me this flexibility, then I’m going to be the first to give them 100%.”

Indeed, research by Stanford University even before the pandemic found that workers who spent four days a week working remotely were 9% more engaged than in-office staff. Gallup finds that “the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time—or three to four days in a five-day workweek—working off site.” No wonder, then, that mandates forcing employees to come to the office result in quiet quitting.

Drop in diversity

The final of the Four Horsemen relates to the serious loss of diversity associated with the mandated office return. A Future Forum survey found that 21% of all white knowledge workers wanted a return to full-time in-office work, but only 3% of all Black knowledge workers wanted the same. Another Future Forum survey found that 38% of Black men wanted a fully flexible schedule, but only 26% of white men did. The Society for Human Resource Management found that half of all Black office workers wanted to work from home permanently, while only 39% of white workers did so.

Why do we see this difference? It’s because Black professionals still suffer from discrimination and microaggressions in the office, and are less vulnerable to harassment in remote work. Similar findings apply to other underrepresented groups.

Evidence shows that underrepresented groups are leaving employers who mandate a return to the office and are fleeing to more flexible companies. For example, Meta Platforms offers permanent fully remote work options. By doing so, they found that “embracing remote work and being distributed-first has allowed Meta to become a more diverse company,” according to Sandra Altiné, Meta’s VP of workforce diversity and inclusion. In 2019, Meta committed to a five-year goal of doubling the number of Black and Hispanic workers in the U.S. and the number of women in its global workforce. Thanks to remote work, Meta’s 2022 Diversity Report shows that it attained and even outperformed its 2019 five-year goals for diversity two years ahead of its original plans.

Companies that offer less flexibility have DEI staff ringing alarm bells about how the desire for remote work among underrepresented groups threatens diversity goals. Underrepresented groups are joining the Great Resignation in greater numbers in the context of the mandated office returns.

Solutions

In working with my clients who wish to bring their employees back to the office and slay the Four Horsemen, I find a combination of strategies to be crucial. Before launching an office return, we consider compensation policies. A June 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resources reports that 48% of survey respondents will “definitely” look for a full-time work-from-home job in their next search. To get them to stay at a full-time job with a 30-minute commute, they would need a 20% pay raise. For a hybrid job with the same commute, they would need a pay raise of 10%.

A September 2022 survey by Goodhire found that 73% of workers believe companies should pay in-office workers more than remote workers. Indeed, research by Owl Labs suggests that it costs an average of $863/month for the average office worker to commute to work versus staying at home, which is about $432/month for utilities, office supplies, and so on.

That data helped my clients develop a fair compensation plan that paid staff a higher salary if they spent more time in the office. Doing so helped address the first two Horsemen, resistance and attrition. Some of my clients even used that policy as a simple yet effective incentive to nudge most of their staff to return to the office in a way that minimized resistance and attrition, while saving significantly on payroll for the small minority who chose to work remotely.

Addressing quiet quitting required a range of techniques. One involved working on improving culture and belonging, such as retreats with fun team-building exercises. Another is centered on helping staff address burnout, such as by providing mental health benefits. Finally, it helps if employees feel you care about their professional development: upskilling pays off.

To help prevent diversity losses, as well as facilitate underrepresented groups getting promoted, it’s valuable to create a formal mentoring program with a special focus on underprivileged staff. That means providing minority staff with two mentors, one from the same minority group and one representing the majority population. Doing so offers the minority mentee a diverse network of connections with the specific knowledge and relationships they will need to advance, while the fact that each mentee has two mentors makes the workload manageable for mentors.

So, if you are committed to returning to a mostly or fully in-person workforce, remember that you need to watch out for–and defeat–the Four Horsemen before they threaten the success of your return-to-office plan.

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D., helps executives use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State.

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