Unravelling the Motives Behind Return to Office Mandates

November 29, 2023

Sarah Morrison

Unravelling the Motives Behind Return to Office Mandates image

In the evolving world of work, the chorus for Return to Office (RTO) mandates is growing louder. But what’s really driving this push? Is it about productivity, presence, or something else entirely? Let’s dive into the heart of this debate.

For much of our corporate history, an employee’s commitment was measured by the hours they kept. This made sense in a manufacturing-driven society: if you weren’t at the factory, you weren’t making things. However, as we transitioned to a knowledge-based economy, our management practices didn’t quite keep up. The clock-in, clock-out mentality followed us from the factory floor to the office, creating a perception that productivity was tethered to physical presence.

Enter the era of broadband and Wi-Fi in every coffee shop. Knowledge workers suddenly had the means to be productive outside the office. Yet, for a long time, Working from Home (WFH) was seen more as a quirky exception rather than the norm. It was almost office slang for a ‘day off.’ As a result, management models for handling WFH remained underdeveloped, treating it as a fringe benefit rather than a fundamental shift in how we work.

Then came the pandemic, a catalyst that forced the entire knowledge working sector into an unplanned WFH experiment. Contrary to longstanding beliefs, productivity didn’t plummet. In fact, many workers found that WFH not only maintained their work efficiency but, in some cases, enhanced it. They discovered benefits in having no commute, flexible schedules, and the peace of a home office. This revelation was a game-changer, challenging the notion that physical office presence was a prerequisite for productivity.

But not everything is as straightforward. Firstly, the shift exposed a gap in management practices. The old school of ‘seeing is believing’ in terms of employee productivity no longer held water in a remote working environment. Yet, there hasn’t been a significant evolution in management styles to adapt to this new reality.

Secondly, for front-line workers, productivity isn’t a concern with WFH. However, for those navigating the corporate ladder, in-person interactions are crucial. Office politics, networking, and the subtle nuances of face-to-face communication play a vital role in career advancement.

Thirdly, it’s often these ambitious middle managers, driven more by career aspirations than productivity concerns, who are the strongest advocates for RTO. Their push for a return to the office may be less about efficacy and more about maintaining visibility and playing the office politics game effectively.

Employers, in justifying RTO mandates, often dress them up in the guise of fostering spontaneous creativity and building trust that ostensibly can only arise from in-person interactions. However, there’s a noticeable lack of effort in adapting management practices and developing tools to genuinely measure and support productivity in a hybrid workforce.

This situation has led to a standoff. Employees are resistant to RTO mandates, perceiving them as insincere or misaligned with their proven ability to maintain productivity remotely. On the other hand, management continues to advocate for RTO, possibly viewing it as the only way to maintain oversight and ensure productivity.

This disconnect points to a deeper issue: a need for a fundamental reassessment of how we measure productivity and manage teams in a changing work landscape. Until management practices evolve to genuinely support and leverage the benefits of a hybrid workforce, this tension is likely to persist.

As we navigate these uncharted waters, the challenge for leaders is to bridge this gap. Embracing flexibility, trusting in the capabilities of their teams, and developing new metrics and tools for managing remote productivity are essential steps forward. It’s about creating a work environment that values results over location, and trust over mere visibility.

Let’s embrace this opportunity to redefine what it means to be productive and present in today’s world. The future of work isn’t just a place; it’s a mindset.