The historic opportunity that continues to get buried behind RTO Mandate headlines

What’s behind the most recent round of post-holiday RTO mandate headlines? Since the calendar flipped to September, I’ve been asked to weigh in on this important topic with CNN This Morning, USA Today, and WorkLife.

We have a historic opportunity to be strategic and intentional in reimagining and recalibrating work to meet the needs of the business AND the workforce.  But, that requires asking a better question than, “How many days in the office?” This was the crux of a great conversation over Labor Day Weekend on CNN This Morning.

On the same topic, in his recent article, “Return to office mandates pick up steam as Labor Day nears but many employees resist,” USA Today’s Paul Davidson talks about how Amazon CEO Andy Jassy was “losing patience” with the internal tug-of-war between leaders who want people in the office and employees who don’t understand the “why” behind RTO mandates.

The Amazon situation is a classic case of employers believing if everyone “returns to the office” on a set number of days, then the in-person interactions that achieve the outcomes they think are suffering will magically happen.  Unfortunately, too often, they don’t.

That’s why, on the other side, you have employees who feel they end up sitting in the office doing the same work they were doing remotely, and they want to know why they are there.

The reality is that being in the same location doesn’t automatically result in the collaboration that optimizes that time together toward priority outcomes.

In-the-office and in-person are not the same. 

As I told Paul, “Without a clear rationale, supported by data, and a plan to achieve those outcomes with more in-person interaction, employees will resist.  Employers can choose to double down on mandates and risk the turnover and recruiting challenges research is showing can result.”

Or, instead, ask, “What aspects of talent development, productivity, or culture benefit from more in-person interaction?  Where does that happen best, and when?”  Then, use the answer to determine the number of days in an office, at a client site, home, or other remote location.

Research and our experience show that workers’ sweet spot for onsite is between 2-3 days. If you define those days by focusing on the work, or the “what,” and then the “where,”  everyone will have a clearer picture of why it matters to be together and prioritize those activities AS WELL AS plan and prioritize what will happen when you’re NOT in person, which is equally as important (and too often overlooked).

How are the various stakeholders impacted by the RTO debate faring? Amazon earned a spot on the losing side of the equation in the latest piece from Jessica Davies, managing editor at WorkLife. Another stakeholder she focused is HR. They need to enforce a policy they often know isn’t optimal. I noted, ultimately, HR will need support from senior leaders in the business willing to “experiment, innovate, train people … a much more resource-intensive, time-intensive, focus-intensive endeavor.”

In today’s flexible work reality, one-size-will-not-fit-all. Employers and employees can engage in a consistent process to determine where, when, and how work is done best together, but that takes time, resources, training, and willingness to experiment.  However, despite being on round three of RTO mandates, some employers believe it’s faster and simpler to mandate a top-down “return” and risk resistance.

Hopefully, this time we will take a different, better path.