Return to office: The mistakes HR still makes (and how to turn them around)

Last week’s focus on return to office strategies revealed employers need to be careful of their approach. Siân Harrington, co-founder, ThePeopleSpace gives her assessment of what to do:

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Mar 12, 2024

Last week TLNT ran a series of interesting articles on return-to-office (RTO) policies.

I was particularly struck by the research from Gartner, which highlighted the repercussions of stringent RTO policies.

It indicated a marked decrease in the intent of employees to remain with organizations that enforce rigid RTO mandates, with particularly negative impacts on high performers, women and millennials.

Now research by Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and Stanford University finds the share of workers living 50 miles away from their workplace has increased more than fivefold since 2018.

The researchers analyzed data from HR and payroll company, Gusto, on the home and work address of employees in thousands of firms from 2018 onwards.

They discovered that in 2019 firms hired employees living on average 10 miles from work. By 2023 new hires live about 35 miles from work. Increased distance from work is most prevalent for employees in their 30s and 40s and in the tech, financial and business services.

This data has big implications for organizations mandating a return to office.

As one of the report’s authors, Nick Bloom, says, managers should think carefully about the locations of their employees before launching an RTO policies. If employers now have hundreds of ‘long-distance’ employees, a strict RTO could lead to massive turnover rates and huge disruption, even for the employees that do comply and remain.

And yet companies continue to ask employees back with very little evidence to support their mandates.

Just two weeks ago UK health and beauty retailer, Boots, became the latest firm to tell office staff it was moving from a three-day a week model to a “normal” five-days a week from 1 September. Meanwhile stories abound in the media of CEOs ‘secretly plotting’ to move away from hybrid work to a five day office return by 2026.

What HR directors are saying

In my role as founder of ThePeopleSpace I’ve spoken to more than 100 HR directors about their RTO approaches for the past year.

It is clear this is a massive learning curve for them all. But, while we are only at the beginning of the RTO journey, there are already lessons emerging.

From these discussions I have identified five common mistakes organizations are making when mandating a return to the office:

Mistake #1: Not being able to explain the ‘why?’

Transparency about the rationale behind RTO decisions is crucial to prevent employee disengagement. Understanding the ‘why’ fosters a sense of inclusivity and purpose among the workforce. Yet many of the decisions to mandate a return to the office are based on outdated beliefs that physical presence directly correlates with productivity, without substantial evidence to back this up.

Key lesson: RTO policies are more likely to be influenced by managerial control motives rather than by proven performance metrics.

Mistake #2: Forcing a ‘one-size fits all’ approach

Recognizing the unique circumstances of individual employees and accommodating their needs through flexible policies is essential for a successful RTO strategy. If you don’t do this you risk talent walking out your door and right into the hands of competitors. It’s not a surprise organizations are taking this approach though.

Key lesson: A uniform policy may be easier to communicate and implement, but you need to be more nuanced. Furthermore, HR professionals may believe that applying the same rules to everyone avoids perceptions of favoritism or inequality.

Mistake #3: Not helping your leaders manage expectations

Equipping leaders with the skills to manage team expectations is vital to prevent manager burnout and promote a positive work environment. Yet this is often overlooked.

Key Lesson: If you are not providing adequate training or resources for managers on how to navigate the complexities of RTO policies, especially in understanding the difference between equity and equality, you leave them ill-equipped to deal with employees who feel the new policy is not fair.

Mistake #4Not being intentional about the best use of the office

Rethinking the role of the office to enhance collaboration and culture, rather than merely filling space, can maximize the benefits of in-person interactions. But all too often the focus on RTO is about just getting people back in.

Key lesson: Discussions only about the office can end up being about costly space that is not being used or an office closure as a cost-saving measure rather than on how the office environment could improve performance or employee wellbeing.

Mistake #5Not evolving your return-to-office policy

Adapting your approach to changing circumstances and employee feedback ensures that RTO strategies remain relevant and effective. But the logistical complexity of implementing changes, alongside the need to ensure compliance with ever-evolving legal regulations, presents significant operational challenges. These factors make constant adaptation of RTO policies both time-consuming and complex.

If you want to successfully implement return to office you need to avoid these pitfalls.

Based on my interviews with HR directors I have produced a free, bite-size educational email course that TLNT readers can now access.

With more about each mistake, the reasons why they happen, and how each mistake can be turned into a positive, the course allows you to take steps to take to make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

But, as with most people-related issues, there is no absolute right or wrong answer to the return-to-office debate.

HR’s huge opportunity

What works for one organization won’t necessarily for another. But therein lies a huge opportunity for HR and talent leaders.

As a profession HR is often maligned for following fads.

The transition to RTO is a prime opportunity to not only guide the organization through a significant change but also to set a precedent for how data-driven decision-making can shape the future of work.

By approaching RTO as a series of tests, learning from outcomes and iterating policies accordingly, HR and talent leaders can demonstrate a commitment to evidence-based strategies.

Return to office strategies are a definitive experiment for HR and talent leaders to showcase their strategic value to the business.

So don’t base your return-to-office policy on skeptical managers who struggle with assessing employee productivity remotely or CEOs who believe RTO allows for more effective management and oversight as they are used to working in an office.

Instead, use this as a chance for informed decision-making.

I believe this is a moment for HR to lead from the front, proving its indispensable value in helping the organization towards a successful balance of productivity, employee wellbeing and operational efficiency.