Is There a Relationship Between Return-to-Office Mandates and Employee Retention?

 Three employees convene in a modern office. They hold notebooks and coffee cups

Remote & Hybrid Culture Retention Strategies

Employees are more likely to stay longer when they have a say in where and how they work. Return-to-office mandates can potentially harm retention and diversity.

If you’ve noticed more people joining you on your morning commute, you’re probably not imagining things.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, only 18.3% of U.S. households had someone who teleworked or worked from home at least three days per week in October 2023. That’s a drop from the previous summer’s 21.2%.

But how do employees feel about this return to in-office life?

For some, it can feel disrespectful and needless. And these are the kinds of feelings that can drive a wedge between employees and employers.

But before we dive into the heart of our discussion, it's crucial to remember the big picture. Not every job fits into the remote-work mold – think of the hands-on work in hospitals, factories, or construction sites. Plus, within the same company, the chance to work from afar isn't the same for everyone.

This brings up real questions about fairness and how we ensure everyone feels valued and supported, regardless of where their work takes place. It's all about finding the right balance, ensuring your push for flexibility doesn't leave anyone behind.

Return-to-office mandates and employee trust

Return-to-office mandates have their appeal, but they can damage the trust and loyalty between employers and employees — especially if employees believe they can work just as well (or better) remotely, or if an employer’s previous statements or actions suggested that a return-to-office was unlikely.

Julian Lute, senior manager and strategic advisor at Great Place To Work, calls out the impact of shifting remote work policies:

“The issue is particularly pressing as many organizations have flipped their stance on remote work. Many initially embraced it, only to later claim that being in the office is crucial for team dynamics. This back-and-forth can undermine the trust and loyalty employees have in their employers, especially when they've proven they can work effectively from anywhere.”

Can flexible work help employees return to the office?

There are two sides to workplace flexibility. In our 2022 workforce study, remote workers say they are less likely to feel like they make a difference in their workplace.  And only two in three remote and hybrid workers (65%) said they could be their true self at work. For fully onsite workers, that number rose to 71%.  

Research also suggests that remote workers may feel more likely to be overlooked for opportunities or promotions.

On the other hand, a lack of workplace flexibility can have a disproportionately negative impact on BIPOC employees or employees who are dealing with high-stress situations such as caregiving responsibilities for children or elderly family members.

Not only that, but our research has shown that working from home is equally productive as working in the office — maybe even more so.

And with this, we’re seeing two vastly different opinions emerge. Some say workplaces need to embrace a remote or hybrid work culture if they want to attract and retain top talent. But then others say return-to-office mandates are required for a team to work to its full potential.

It’s no wonder so many managers’ heads are spinning.

The solution: involving employees in the decisions that affect them

Fortunately, our research has found that employee retention isn’t necessarily dependent on whether a workplace declares itself remote/hybrid. Rather, it is dependent on whether employees have any say in where and how they work.

This is where the danger of mandating a non-negotiable return-to-office becomes clear: it eliminates the employee voice and, by default, any sense of trust. When employees feel involved in the return-to-office discussion, they’re more likely to feel trusted, which in turn leads to higher employee engagement and productivity.

"Companies that foster trust with their workforce are adopting a 'pull' strategy to encourage office attendance, in contrast to the 'push' strategy. While pushing employees might fill the office, it doesn't necessarily lead to increased productivity, innovation, or improved work experience," says Lute.

Other employee experience experts also explain that a blanket approach is ineffective.

“I don’t think there’s a single answer that fits what everyone needs. It changes from person to person and culture to culture,” says Jan van der Hoop, President of Fit First Technologies, a talent-matching platform focused on job fit.

“Any company who mandates a full-time return to office for everyone is at risk of losing their best talent… Top performers can take their skills and go find a new job. And I can tell you firsthand from talking to employers who have put their foot down, they’ve lost people.”

How are employees responding to return-to-office mandates?

According to our latest research on employee retention, the risk of employees leaving decreases when employees can choose where they work.

Our study found that employees are:

  • 3x more likely to want to stay when they can choose between remote, hybrid, or onsite work
  • 2x more likely to want to stay when their work team or group can choose their remote work policy

Among the employees we surveyed, only 43% of those under an employer mandate said they desire longevity in their roles. By comparison, 60% of those able to choose their work location said they wanted to stay with that employer long-term.

For employers struggling to attract talent and balance employee demands with company needs, this should come as a relief.

That’s because, despite what some of the more dramatic HR headlines may say, employees aren’t solely seeking work-from-home jobs. They’re seeking jobs that allow them to bring their full selves to work, by encouraging them do their best work while also acknowledging that they have lives and responsibilities beyond the workplace.

In other words, workplace flexibility and choice are the key factors when it comes to employee retention.

What are the challenges of introducing flexibility and autonomy in the workplace?

Introducing flexibility and autonomy into our workplaces comes with its own set of challenges, particularly as we navigate the aftermath of the pandemic. Lute offers insight into these complexities:

"Even before the pandemic, many companies were exploring ways to make work more flexible and to give employees more autonomy. The arrival of COVID-19 pushed these initiatives into overdrive.

“Now, we're faced with the challenge of making these adjustments permanent in a meaningful way. It involves rethinking how we foster connections when casual desk visits are less common, and how employees who became accustomed to smaller, more nimble teams during the pandemic can adapt to expanded operations and new expectations."

In the grand scheme of our modern work lives, this shift towards flexibility and autonomy is still in its infancy. Considering that the traditional office environment has been the norm for decades, it's understandable that fully integrating and optimizing these new ways of working will require time.

We're charting new territory in the workplace, and it's natural for there to be a learning curve as we all adjust to these changes.

Balancing workplace flexibility with fairness

As we reflect on the journey toward more flexible and autonomous work environments, it's crucial to acknowledge the varied landscape of our modern workforce. The reality is that not every industry or role lends itself to remote work.

In some fields, the nature of the job demands physical presence, while in others, the opportunity for remote work may not be uniformly available, leading to concerns about fairness and equity within the same company. This diversity in work experiences reminds us that a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace flexibility isn't just impractical; it's impossible.

Offering employees a say in where they work has been linked to numerous benefits, including increased satisfaction and productivity. However, this doesn't mean the right move is to give employees an unrestricted choice.

Effective remote work policies require thoughtful parameters that consider the nature of the work, its impact on colleagues and the broader company, and alignment with company values.

What about those who, due to the specifics of their roles, cannot choose their work setting? In these cases, companies need to engage in an open dialogue with employees. Understanding the underlying needs and perceptions of inequity among these employees allows for creative solutions that support work-life balance and psychological well-being, even if remote work isn't an option.

It's also important to remember that remote work isn't universally desired or beneficial. The advantages and drawbacks vary widely among individuals and organizations, reflecting the complexity of adapting to this model. What works splendidly for one may pose challenges for another, emphasizing the need for a nuanced approach to workplace policies.

In our debate on the future of work, we must remain grounded in the diverse realities of different industries and roles. The shift towards more flexible and autonomous working arrangements speaks to a broader evolution in how we define and approach work.

Yet, this evolution must be inclusive, recognizing the full spectrum of work environments and ensuring that our strategies are as adaptable and varied as the workforce itself.

Our goal should not be to champion remote work as the only path forward but to shape a workplace culture that values flexibility, equity, and choice within the practical constraints of each unique industry and role.

Make your return-to-office transition a success

Looking to ensure trust remains strong as your team transitions back to the office or continues working remotely? Partner with Great Place To Work and access our Trust Index™ Survey. It’s an effective tool for deeply understanding your employees' needs and concerns.

By working together, we can help you navigate the challenges and create a workplace where everyone feels valued, heard, and happy, no matter where they’re working from. Reach out to us, and let's start building a stronger, more connected workplace together.

Download our report, Unlocking the Secrets of Employee Retention, for strategies and insights on maximizing the employee experience in your workplace.

Claire Hastwell