Return-to-office policies may create boardroom brawls, HR execs say

RTO mandates cited as the issue that had the greatest potential to foment conflict

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Nearly three out of four organizations said return-to-office policies could prompt boardroom battles, according to a new survey of United States workplace leaders, showing how senior management doesn’t always see eye to eye on the issue.

RTO mandates were cited as the issue that had the greatest potential to foment conflict among leaders, the September poll of 170 human resources executives by workplace consultant Gartner Inc. found. Those policies came ahead of such charged topics as layoffs, debates about diversity and ESG, and the adoption of generative AI.

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The majority of those polled also said that office attendance policies had increased tension between teams, possibly because just one-third of firms had trained their managers to address the many challenges that arise when workers are called back to the office more often.

boardroom battles

“Leaders just don’t agree on what the requirements should be,” said Caitlin Duffy, a research director at Gartner’s human resources practice. “There is so much variation across teams, functions and the nature of what roles require. Managers have been left to figure it out for their teams and that’s hard.”

The findings, coming amid RTO ramp-ups at many firms, illustrate that opinions about the value of in-office work can differ even at the top of the organizational chart.

High-profile CEOs like Walt Disney Co.’s Bob Iger and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co. have extolled the benefits of on-site work, and a recent survey of 400 U.S. CEOs from auditor KPMG found that nearly two in three envision all corporate employees to be back in offices full-time in the next three years. Some firms, like Alphabet Inc.’s Google, have said that attendance will be incorporated into employee performance reviews.

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Managers have been left to figure it out for their teams and that’s hard

Caitlin Duffy

Yet not all corporate chiefs are convinced that compelling people back is the best policy. “I don’t work well in an office, it just doesn’t work with my personality,” Salesforce Inc. chief executive Marc Benioff said last month. “For my people that’s my message. They need to mix in person and remote together.”

Last year, an executive at Apple Inc. who oversaw machine learning and artificial intelligence left the iPhone maker over the company’s return-to-office policy.

Workers, by and large, aren’t coming back at the pace some leaders anticipated: Average office attendance across 10 big U.S. cities still stands at about 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to security firm Kastle Systems International LLC, no higher than where it was early in 2023.

The Gartner survey also found that workers are growing more likely to leave their jobs, with nearly one in three firms saying their organization experienced more voluntary departures in September compared with the previous three months, up from one in five who said so in June. The uptick contrasts with the quit rate as measured by the government’s monthly job-openings report, which has steadily declined from last year’s high until stabilizing in August.

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The rising quit rate in Gartner’s survey suggests that workers are either gaining confidence in their ability to find another job in the current labour market — or that they are so discontent at work that they see quitting as a viable option. Hiring surged in September, while unemployment remained low and the pace of layoffs slowed. Along with the resilient labour market, dissatisfaction with RTO policies could play a factor in some employees’ decisions to quit, Duffy said.

More than four in 10 employers who implemented RTO mandates have experienced higher than normal attrition rates, according to a survey of 6,650 employers from Unispace, a workplace strategy and design firm.

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The HR leaders also said they’re more concerned about employee stress and burnout, but few were implementing preventive measures to reduce them, like redesigning roles or identifying tasks that lead to excessive stress. Instead, most firms are providing benefits like counselling, but only after a problem emerges.

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