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.

Key Takeaways from Smucker’s Flexible Work Evolution

“How do we do this?” How do we execute a flexible work model that works? Stories help. They can inspire, even if the path chosen wouldn’t work for anyone else, what matters more is the process they followed.

Chip Cutter shared a great story in The Wall Street Journal this past weekend. It shows how The J.M. Smucker Co. continues to evolve its flexible operating model, or the way the organization will operate flexibly across workplaces, spaces and time.

Key takeaways from the article that SHOULD inform how other organizations approach defining their model:

  • Their “strategy” was set after months of internal debate (that should include employees).
  • They ruled out mandatory specific days -Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – as too prescriptive.
  • People seem to be prioritizing activities that benefit from in person interaction.
  • They seem to have decided that even if workspaces aren’t used during non-core weeks the overhead is worth carrying to enable in person interactions when onsite. This is a new workspace ROI more employers will need to reckon with as well.
  • They will continue to reassess the approach if business results suffer. An organization’s flexible work model will need to be reviewed and recalibrated as realities change.
  • How the CEO, Mark Smucker, reinforces the flexible context within which work will continue to happen and evolve: “Whether it’s this model, or some other model, I find it very hard to imagine a world where we go back to being in the office even four days a week, let alone five. I just don’t see it happening,” Smucker said. “There’ll be some form of this forever.”

The takeaway that SHOULD NOT inform how other organizations define their flexible work model: “22 core weeks is the answer.”

Core weeks in person may be AN aspect of an effective flexible work model, and they may not be. It will depend on the business and the measurable outcomes that are determined to be achieved better with onsite, in person interaction.

It may be 22 core weeks OR it may be once a month or it may be quarterly. Again, it depends. This is the approach that The J.M. Smucker Co. decided could work best for their 1,600 corporate workers (out of a 6,000 total workforce) but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for every other organization.

This is the challenge of today’s flexible work reality. The “9-to-5, in the office Monday-Friday” traditional work model set the collective context of work pre-COVID (even though it was already disappearing). Now one-size-will-NOT-fit-all, but what others are doing can offer insight as long as it emerged from a thoughtful, holistic process.

One question I had after reading the article: How does The J.M. Smucker Co. flexible operating model include the other 4,400 employees? If it’s solely limited to those who could work “hybrid” then likely it doesn’t. But if it’s focused on how, when, and where all employees can do their jobs “flexibly” then the manufacturing employees can also reimagine how and when they work, and increasingly even where.

It’s all in how you approach and frame what’s possible.

WeWork and the role of co-working as AN enabler of work — Marketplace

It’s hard to believe it is already mid-August!  One thing is for sure, the ever-evolving world of work isn’t taking a vacation.

Last week I had the opportunity to reinforce an important point as part of this Marketplace segment about what’s going on with WeWork specifically, co-working more broadly, and workspace in general: “We are coming out of what was a crisis-driven execution of flexibility…And we are still reimagining how, when, and where we’re going to work.”

This reimagining will include how, when, and where we utilize all types of spaces and places as AN (not THE) enabler of work—employer headquarters, satellite office “hubs”, client sites, independent co-working spaces, home offices, restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, etc.

Because there are many “wheres” in which to work flexibly beyond the duality of home or office, I continue to encourage the move beyond the limits of “hybrid” which by definition is “a thing made by combining two different elements”.

We will be in this state of flux for a while because every organization is still figuring out how their people will work flexibly, which has to come first. Then the alignment with spaces of all types an organization or individual needs, will become clearer.  Listen or read the story here.

How are workspaces in your organization enabling the evolving, flexible way teams and individuals work?  What types of workspaces, both onsite and remote, are part of the enablement infrastructure?  Let me know


“Common Sense Commentary” on the Flexible Next of Work with KNFX Phoenix’s Bill Brady

What makes an effective manager? How do we foster and advance employee engagement? Is flexibility just about young people trying to protect their ability to work remotely in this new post-COVID landscape? I had the opportunity to delve into these important workplace topics and more in a lively discussion on KFNX Phoenix’s The Bill Brady Show.

While the generational issue can be important in some contexts, I told Bill, “I think it’s more complex than just making it about generational divisions. There are legitimately people who did grow up in a period of time where they did go into an office, and they did what their manager said. And that was how they worked. But on the other side, there is a whole group of multigenerational people, who for the last four years have worked very flexibly so they don’t have that same understanding of why you have to come into an office and do your work.”

One of the core challenges we discussed was how managers and their teams must come together to bridge the gap between mandating “you must come back to the office” and answering employees’ obvious question, “Why?”

The missing piece: organizations are not leading with the work when figuring out how, when and where they are going to operate most effectively. They lead with a set number of days in the office, or “where,” and use that as a proxy for performance or outcomes.

How to fix this is simple, but not necessarily easy given how many managers and organizations we see still trying to push office-focused mandates on their people. As I say often, so much of the opportunity we have to reimagine work starts with first asking WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO to define the PURPOSE as well as the desired OUTCOMES.

“If you feel like there is a purpose to your work, that you are given the priorities that make sense so that you have flexibility to get your job done and manage your life … there will be an engagement there that does pay off and it has been proven in the research. And it’s something that every organization on the other side of COVID needs to begin to craft in partnership with their employees. We have to be willing to meet in the middle, listen to each other and take the best of what both groups are saying and create what’s going to be next.”

Listen to the full interview here.

Directors: How to Engage a Diverse & NextGen Workforce & Workplace with WCD Global Institute

It’s no secret that across all demographics, flexibility is a top driver for employee recruitment, engagement, and retention. In fact, a recent Korn Ferry survey found 72% of workers would choose jobs with a lower salary if those jobs offered flexibility. Following the pandemic’s crisis-driven shift to flexible work, employees know they can be productive and successful when working outside of the traditional model, and they don’t want to give it up. Especially the next-generation workforce.

Those younger employees were top of mind at the recent Women Corporate Directors Foundation’s Global Institute 2023 where I joined C-suite executives who are also board directors for a dynamic panel discussion on “Engaging a Diverse & NextGen Workforce & Workplace.”

We discussed how, as business leaders and boards closely evaluate their workplace needs, their goal is to ensure that a diverse, engaged, and productive workforce is in place today and for the future. That will require reimagining how work is done. My panel partners echoed that flexibility is the number one expectation for talent in their organizations, and boards will play a key role in making sure the evolution of work considers the needs of the business and employees.

It’s interesting that historically organizations have looked to their Directors for their experience leading through challenge and change, but with flexibility, few will be able to draw on past experiences. This is one area where directors need to learn while checking their perceptions and beliefs about how work should be done in order to guide and inform.

Aim to make operating with intention across workplaces, spaces, and time how EVERYONE works.  So, millennials aren’t viewed as “not wanting to work hard.” So, women and people of color aren’t given “career penalties” for wanting the work+life fit that meets their needs. And boomers see working flexibly as an option besides retiring full-time.

Yes, we have to close the gaps between employee and management expectations – the clash of contexts I speak about so often. Yes, work is messy right now after COVID’s historic disruption. (Let’s remember, though, work wasn’t always perfect pre-pandemic, either.) But we have to meet the moment now with an equally disruptive but thoughtful, strategic and purposeful rethinking of work and how, when, and where it can be done.

The gaps may feel insurmountable, but the consensus was that Directors must play an important role in driving positive, sustainable change in the coming months and years. Important conversations such as those we had at the WCD Global Institute will help pave the way.

Are you a director, or does your board need help understanding what strategic work flexibility is, why it matters, how its executed effectively, and how they play a role in success? If the answer is “yes,” let’s connect and talk about how we can facilitate a discussion that will prepare you and them to lead effectively from the Boardroom.

For my friends in the U.S., hopefully, you had some time off over July 4th for some rest and relaxation. I know I needed it!  We hit the beach.  Here’s the view from an early morning walk. Magic.

On Point National Public Radio Episode and Re-Thinking a Better Way to Work

Let’s be honest. Work before the pandemic wasn’t exactly awesome. Even then, training, talent development, and technology were just a few workplace challenges. It’s no surprise we’re struggling with those same issues now. So, why are organizations mandating employees return to the office and to a work model that was already flawed?! And what should we be doing instead?

These are just a few topics I discussed last week with host  Meghna Chakrabarti of WBUR Boston’s On Point, a nationally syndicated public radio program. How can we re-imagine work to meet the moment and seize the opportunity to work better than before and during the pandemic?

“I have seen countless times (that when) organizations sit down and ask, ‘What are we doing? And how, when and where do we do it best?’” they unlock “a whole new level of engagement, performance, and well-being through that process.”

That’s what organizations should do now, but they’re not. Instead, they simply send an email with a set number of days in the office and leave it at that. That’s why we’re stuck.

Instead of focusing on a “return” to the office. Let’s focus on a “return” to fundamentals, from performance to productivity, from engagement to culture. Now that’s a “return” I can support. And speaking of culture, I believe culture is an outcome. It’s not necessarily a starting point. Culture was another thing we didn’t do so well before the pandemic.

But now we “have an opportunity to reinforce the values of the organization, to think about what matters to us — thinking about who we are, what do we do, how and where do we do it? That then becomes our culture. We become a high performing, dynamic, diverse, inclusive, flexible work culture,” and organization.

That takes leadership “willing to hold the space” for a “much more robust rethinking of work across a bunch of dimensions vs. just being in the office. Is it about days in office or is it about what are we doing when we’re together in person, and what are we doing when we’re not?”

When I recently posed that question to the senior leadership of a 10,000- person national professional services firm, they all raised their hands and said, “It’s the second thing.” My reply, “Well, then let’s do that. Let’s stop doing the mandate.”

Read the transcript or listen to the On Point episode to learn how these leaders and their business line teams are working together to develop the parameters and structure of their high performing AND flexible business operating model.

That’s the type of collective effort we need going forward. That’s how we can make flexible work – work – when we’re together and when we’re not, for both the business and the employee.

My NJ Star Ledger Op Ed What’s Next for Work Now that COVID Emergencies Expired

Imagine a future in which leaders, rather than clinging to a model of work that was fast becoming outdated even before 2020, invest in a new era of strategic and intentional high performance flexibility.

Yet, with COVID public health emergency declarations expiring last month, it’s clear employers and employees are not on the same page about how, when, and where we work going forward. In an opinion piece published in this past Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger, I provide both context for why and guidance on how to close this gap.

You can read the full piece below, but if I can offer one hopeful takeaway it’s this:

“Now is the time for employers and employees to move past failed mandates and entrenched positions and reimagine work together … The effort is not only worth it, but also transformational.”

By Cali Williams Yost

While COVID public health emergency declarations expired last month, the way we work is forever changed. Flexible work certainly had roots before we were mandated to stay home in March of 2020. But those changes were abrupt with no time to plan. Organizations quickly had to transform how they operated, and in some cases even survived.

Three years later, it’s clear employers and employees are not on the same page about how, when, and where we work going forward. Many leaders with genuine concerns about innovation, talent development, and culture believe the best work happens onsite while employees believe they’ve done their jobs well, or even better, with increased flexibility.

Both sides have some validity, which has led to a historic clash of contexts between the two. Leaders demand “come back” and employees rightfully ask, “Why?” Attempts to close this gap with return-to-office mandates, extra perks, and events fall flat.

As employers double down on compliance, it’s pushing employees further toward the door. Additionally, this approach makes work even less flexible than before COVID. The more rigid policies become, the more organizations miss the opportunity to develop a well-executed flexibility strategy that enhances job performance, employee engagement, and well-being. Now is the time for employers and employees to move past failed mandates and entrenched positions and reimagine work together.

But first, we need to recognize that COVID accelerated an existing trend toward greater flexibility and the priority now is to optimize that flexibility. Leaders need to stop wasting resources trying to “go back” and instead invest in high-performance flexibility across workplaces, spaces and time.

Data from my firm’s research conducted before the pandemic found most U.S. employees had some form of flexibility with more than one-third saying they did most of their work remotely. But that same survey showed nearly half of those with flexibility received no training or guidance how to use it. Additionally, in a Harvard Business School survey of 6,500 global leaders, also conducted before COVID, respondents cited “expectation for flexibility” as the top future of work factor they expected to impact their businesses, yet prepared for that flexibility was ranked 14th.

Second, come to terms with the price and payoff of optimizing flexibility. Just as with other business priorities and change, high-performance flexibility requires strategic intention, resources, commitment, and a willingness to collectively experiment and learn. The payoff is a dynamic, agile business and workforce that takes the best of how, when and where we worked both before and during the pandemic and moves forward from there.

Third, stop with the mandates and stop using a set number of days in office as a proxy for performance. Instead, leaders and teams together need to first ask, “What do we need to get done and why?” That lays the foundation to determine how, when and where we can do the best work and meet the needs of both the business and the employees. This also allows leaders to address what they believe was lost during the pandemic’s crisis-driven shift to flexible work and what they see as most important to regain.

Lastly, understand that inclusion in the process, not the outcome, ensures consistency and fairness. When everyone’s involved in answering the questions above, then everyone’s involved in redefining how, when and where they work next. That will differ by the job, the organization and the clientele, but under the umbrella of a consistent flexibility strategy.

For the majority of workers who do their jobs onsite, reconsider how and when they work. For those who can work either onsite or remotely, rethink how they spend their time when in person. And for those with fully remote roles, determine how they remain connected with colleagues and integral to day-to-day operations. Work will never be one-size-fits-all.

As we move past COVID’s public health emergency, some will continue to cling to a work model that was fast becoming outdated even before 2020. But I hope most will invest in a new era of strategic and intentional high-performance flexibility, one in which we move past entrenched beliefs and reimagine the future of work. The effort is not only worth it but also transformational.


“Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development”

As questions about hybrid workplaces and how, when, and where we do our best work continue to take center stage moving forward from COVID, one of biggest reasons leaders give for seeking a return to the office – either by mandate or by guessing on a magic number of days – is the need for onboarding, training, and developing talent in today’s flexible work environments.

This was the topic of a recent conversation I had with Jeanne Sahadi of CNN Business and the focus of her resulting article, “Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development.”

As I told Jeanne, and as I tell every leader who will listen, “Fixating on the question of ‘how many days should employees be in the office?’ is the wrong approach. One size will not fit all. That is why mandates are failing.”

I advise leaders that the better approach is to let individual operating units within an organization decide for themselves how often they need to be in person after addressing the same series of questions:

1. What work needs to be done?
2. How should we train and mentor new talents to achieve that?
3. How, when and where can training and work happen best?

When mandates are handed down in the name of enhancing the onboarding process or being necessary to preserve an organization’s culture, it sets up what I call the clash of contexts: employees fail to see the need to be in the office when they’ve been satisfied and productive remotely; organizations fail to clearly define how on-site work supports the purpose and goals of the business.
My suggested questions put the focus back where it needs to be: on the work that needs to get done. And, as I also shared with Jeanne, “Included in the answers are issues of onboarding and how to successfully foster observation and learning — while realistically assessing what is best done in person versus what can be accomplished remotely. In general, there has been a lack of intentionality of how we develop young people. It wasn’t awesome pre-COVID either. This is an opportunity to do better.”

To be clear, in-person absolutely matters, unless time together is spent siloed behind closed doors on randomly mandated days. But leaders have to start by defining their why or purpose and then work with their teams collaboratively to re-imagine how in-person time supports culture and collaboration and, in turn, fosters productive and meaningful onboarding and training.

Finally, a quick shout out to Mark Gilbreath who recognized the importance of this topic and included Jeanne’s article in his “Another week, another wave” round up newsletter, which includes 5 news items from the world of work and workplace you can digest in 5 minutes.

The Quiet Workplace Guide: Beyond the buzzwords of the day

If you haven’t been following the excellent workplace and future of work coverage from Digiday Media’s WorkLife, I recommend you dive into their recent Quiet Workplace Guide. The series examines why leaders need to look beyond the headlines and buzzwords of the day to the deeper human and organizational challenges beneath them in order to lead happy, successful and productive workforces.

I spoke with Managing Editor Jessica Davies for the article “Inside the Quiet Workplace phenomenon: What leaders need to know,” and shared what organizations need to do “to stay ahead of the employee disengagement trend and ensure it doesn’t spread further.”

We discussed how “the pandemic accelerated people-related challenges that were always there but can no longer be ignored in a talent shortage that isn’t going to change even with a recession. And in a work reality that has been fundamentally transformed, people don’t necessarily want to work the way they worked before.

“But they want to be invited into the thinking about the way an organization is going to operate going forward. And until we do that people are going to quiet quit and managers are not going to be able to get the most out of their workforce.”

Employees need to be part of the process on the front side, as leaders and teams first ask, “What we need to get done (and why)” and then together re-imagine the how, when and where work happens best.

I explained, “What we’ve experienced is a crisis-driven suboptimal execution of flexibility,” including remote/hybrid work models, which continue to be a struggle for so many organizations. Some of the problems I outlined included not consistently adopting technology for efficient communication, collaboration and coordination across different workplaces, as well as the fact that most have not figured out what we’re doing when we do come together in person.

The article also included data and perspectives from Dr. Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace and well-being at Gallup; Peter Capelli, professor of management at the Wharton School; and Sarah Robb O’Hagan, CEO of corporate well-being consultancy Exos and a former Fortune 50 C-suite executive.

Read the full article here.

Alternative Approach to RTO Mandates | Open Office Hours TOMORROW!

Looking forward to my first Open Office Hours in 2023! Join me tomorrow, Friday, 2/24 from, 12 to 12:30 pm EST.  Click the blue-button above for the Zoom link.

Open Office Hours are an informal opportunity for newsletter subscribers to ask questions, share insights, or just say “hi.”  If you are more comfortable sending questions in advance, please forward them to Alison Batten at  See you tomorrow!

Now to the most recent round of RTO mandates receiving headline-grabbing employee push back. What’s going on?  Why is it happening?  Is there a better way? Yes, there is.

What’s going on?

Two weeks ago, 2,300 employees signed a petition challenging Disney’s mandate to be in the office four days a week starting in March.  This week, 14,000 employees joined a Slack channel pushing back on Amazon’s mandate to be in the office at least three days a week.

And those are just the employees willing to publicly state dissatisfaction. There are likely more silent objectors behind them.

Why is it happening? 

Bottomline: After three years, we are emerging from a historic disruption of the traditional place-based operating model. Leaders, managers and employees need to get on the same page about work and performance–where it happens, when it happens or how it happens. Right now, they are not.

Previous one-size-fits-all, policy mandates haven’t resulted in meaningful, coordinated in person interaction.

Why? There usually wasn’t an execution process behind the policy rollout to help operating units answer the questions:

  1. What will we do on the days we are together and on the days we aren’t,
  2. When are we doing it, and
  3. Why?
The coordination and planning were just supposed to happen. Sometimes it did, but often it didn’t.

That is not sustainable. At the same time, doubling down on RTO mandates that incite employee resistance is not the answer either.

Is there a better way? Yes, there is, but it takes more effort. Right now, that’s what both sides are resisting. 

The goal should be to define, experiment with and optimize flexibility that works for the business and people.

To do that, we have to stop leading with WHERE, or days remote or in the office. Instead, start with WHAT, or “what do we need to do?”

For example, in the case of Disney, the “what” seems to be the need to be “creative—connect, observe,” and “grow professionally.” THEN with those strategic priorities front and center, teams would determine how, when and where the activities that support creativity and growth happen most effectively, including with more in-person interaction.

Guided by a consistent process, my experience is Disney’s creative teams would decide what they will prioritize doing when they are in person on average “x” number of days and what they will prioritize doing when they are not together. They may determine the optimal number of days in person could be four, perhaps three or even two.

The point is that THEY, the people closest to the work, have decided how, when and where that creativity and growth happens best making it more likely to actually happen.

It can seem much more efficient and fair to say, “come in three or four days a week.” But back-to-office mandates short circuit what can be a powerful and engaging next-level work optimization process. It’s a missed opportunity for the business and workers.

Finally, people will continue to value flexibility as much or sometimes more than salary. And, ultimately, we will likely land somewhere between 2-3 days onsite for those jobs that support some level of remote work.

What if we skip the “mandate phase” of this evolution toward the inevitable? Instead, agree to work together and reimagine how, when and where work will happen next.

It may seem like it takes longer and requires more effort, but it gets you farther faster.

One place to begin is by defining “flexibility?” In our thought-starter for the week, we shared our definition. What’s yours?