Return to the office? Not so fast

CFOs should think carefully before jumping on the RTO bandwagon.
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5 min read

RTO, it seems, has become the new WFH. Major tech firms are in the headlines for insisting employees return to the office (RTO, if you’re hip) or face the consequences. Google is checking badge data to see how often staff are on site. Amazon requested employees come to the office three days a week or risk “voluntary resignation.” Even Zoom, in an ironic move worthy of an Alanis Morissette song, wants its employees to return to their cubicles part time.

With RTO so prominent a trend, and with the pandemic in the rearview mirror, C-suite executives may be wondering if it’s time to revisit their remote work policies. But CFOs should handle any such changes with care. Rushed and poorly-implemented RTO policies can backfire, leading to employee dissent and turnover.

They can also damage a company’s reputation, Kaleem Clarkson, COO and co-founder of remote work consultancy Blend Me, told CFO Brew. For instance, he said, when the insurance company Farmers Group insisted employees return to the office, after promising most of them in 2022 that they could stay remote, many were embittered. Some had even moved, assuming they’d be able to work from home indefinitely. “Employees won’t forget” the whiplash from such decisions, Clarkson said, and will be quick to leave once opportunities open up.

Instead of mandating that employees return to in-person work, remote work experts suggest taking a more measured approach to remote work policies—one which addresses leaders’ concerns about productivity and culture while meeting employees’ desire for flexibility.

Tackle the genuine challenges of remote work: Remote work does present real challenges. “Research very clearly shows us that collaboration, culture, and creativity tend to be more difficult” when people work remotely, Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy, workforce management at Gallup told CFO Brew. “The risk of being apart is you lose the interpersonal nature of work and the communicative nature of work.”

Remote work can also make it more difficult for new employees to be socialized and mentored. “There’s extensive research showing that junior folks are less productive when they’re hired remotely,” Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of the hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of the book, Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams, told CFO Brew. If companies don’t “apply the right approach to mentoring, junior people do get left behind. That’s a prime reason for RTO,” he said.

Think hybrid, not RTO: But none of these problems is insurmountable, Wigert, Tsipursky, and Clarkson told us.

Rather than thinking in terms of how they’re going to get employees back into the office, companies can consider how they’re going to make hybrid work successful, Wigert said.

“The future of the office has arrived and it’s hybrid,” Wigert asserts, citing Gallup research that shows that around 75% of remote-capable workers are either working fully remotely or in a hybrid setting.

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Hybrid work can seem like the best of both worlds, bridging the flexibility of remote work with the camaraderie of in-person work. But it’s not a “silver bullet,” Wigert warns. “At the end of the day, you’ve still got to get the culture, the teamwork, and the strategy right. Without that, nothing works. You can’t take advantage of the advantages of hybrid work if you do it poorly.”

The recipe for hybrid success: There are many factors involved in making hybrid work successful, but management, performance management, and intentionality are some that stand out.

Often, Tsipursky said, managers receive little training in leading hybrid teams. That’s one reason they may advocate for a return to the office setting, he said: They’re more comfortable there. Managers may need to adopt new practices when managing remotely, such as holding more frequent meetings to discuss performance, he said.

Having a “robust performance management system” is also critical to hybrid work, Wigert said. Such a system can be an invaluable source of data, and it can reassure leaders that productivity goals are being met. “When leaders have visibility into performance outcomes, and how to improve them, employees’ work location is less concerning,” he said.

Employers should be intentional about how they bring remote employees together in person, through retreats and other functions, Clarkson said. They should also be willing to invest some of the cost savings from remote work back into opportunities for employees to connect. “That’s what great fully remote companies” like GitLab and Zapier do, he said. “They get together three and four times a year.”

Secure employee buy-in: When employers set RTO policies without employee input, they can face backlash, Tsipursky said. Without surveys or discussions to provide such input, companies risk making decisions in a vacuum without sufficient data, he said. They can also fail to have employees buy into their policies.

Wigert recommends letting individual teams decide on their own working conditions. He said teams can draft and commit to “team charters”—documents that detail their mission, goals, performance metrics, and guidelines for working together remotely. The charter might stipulate how many days per week or month team members will work in-person, or set working hours when everyone will be available. Gallup’s research, he said, shows that the “most engaged hybrid teams are the ones where the team actually determines their policy or adjusted their policy in the end to be right for them.”

And don’t be too quick to decide that hybrid is or isn’t working, Wigert said. “Organizational change takes time,” he said. Many times, when you make changes, “you will see changes in productivity and employee engagement, for the better and the worse, until things stabilize,” he said.

“It’s kind of like going back to school,” he added. “It takes time to get used to your new routine.”

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.