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Forcing Employees to Return to Office is a Mistake, New Study Shows

Innovation and business performance haven’t suffered during the pandemic, and companies that mandate even a hybrid work model risk higher attrition, lower talent attraction, and reduced diversity

As more organizations announce plans to return workers to the office, a mistake many are making is mandating that employees spend a certain number of days or hours in the office, according to a new global study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). The study, which included perspectives from 1,452 executives and employees from organizations located in 55 countries, demonstrates that such mandates not only risk higher attrition and lower diversity, but they’re also unnecessary.

According to the study—From Cube to Cloud™: The Next Era of Work— most organizations have reported significant success in working remotely:

  • The vast majority (79%) of surveyed leaders who work at companies with more than 1,000 employees say that flexible work was highly successful
  • Innovation effectiveness increased since the onset of the pandemic (48.4% report a very high or high level during vs. 41% prior to the pandemic)
  • Most of those surveyed (55%) say that employee engagement improved
  • Only 16% of respondents say that their organizational culture has become weaker during the pandemic, with 45% reporting it strengthened

Some CEOs have expressed a strong desire to have employees return to the workplace, usually citing concerns involving productivity, collaboration, innovation, and cultural cohesion. These concerns often are subjective in nature, and employees are beginning to push back on companies that don’t provide full flexibility in where and when work gets done.

“The research disagrees with CEOs who are making decisions to return workers to the office in the name of things like improved innovation and collaboration,” said Kevin Oakes, CEO of i4cp. “Most companies adapted quite well during the pandemic, particularly high-performance organizations. But in setting new policies on returning to the office, CEOs need to recognize that their work experience is often pretty different from that of most employees. Decisions like these need to be based on data and measured employee sentiment, not personal preference.”

The downside of forced return—even for only part of the work week—is that companies are likely to lose top talent. Nearly half (48%) of the business leaders i4cp surveyed say that their organizations are already facing moderate-to-severe talent attrition, and 65% expect further losses as the pandemic winds down.

The greatest concern for many organizations involves sudden departures in critical roles, or loss of high-potential employees who have more opportunities to join employers with flexible work policies that match their preferences. Further, with improved workforce diversity a major focus for most organizations, a return-to-office mandate reduces the available talent pool, particularly diminishing participation by working mothers.

“One CHRO complained to us recently that her company has already lost several top candidates to a competitor because of her firm’s refusal to embrace a flexible work policy,” Oakes adds. “At least in the short term, these decisions certainly will affect employer brand and the ability to attract new employees.”

Instead, the study argues that for organizations to be truly agile, the onus of managing workers effectively in this new era will fall where it should: to the manager. Life circumstances aren’t uniform across organizational roles, levels, or departments, so the decision on where and when to work productively needs to be an employee-manager decision. Such challenges mean that managing in the future likely will require enhanced leadership skills, and the study outlines several capabilities that are expected to become more critical.

The study was conducted in partnership with Human Resource Executive, HRM Asia, IVentiv, SHRM APAC, The Talent Company, and Top Employers Institute.

The From Cube to Cloud study is available today exclusively to i4cp members and can be downloaded here.

Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.