Are Leaders Boiling the Frog on RTO Mandates?

5 min read
RTO Mandates

Why are leaders intent on killing the golden goose that is hybrid work? Remember the fable of boiling the frog? Well, it seems traditionalist leaders are turning up the heat to push employees into spending more time in the office, but at what cost?

Old-School Leaders U-Turn on RTO Mandates

In a major shift, companies like Chipotle and BlackRock are nudging their in-office mandates from three days a week to four. Nike, not to be left behind, has pivoted its return-to-office strategy, insisting that employees “just do it” and be in the office four days a week, up from the previous three. The rationale? A spokesperson from Nike expressed a yearning for “the power and energy that comes from working together in person.” 

In turn, the Canadian federal government has increased its in-office mandate to three days a week from two, leading to serious resistance from public sector unions. Similarly, the US federal government has been trying to increase the in-office attendance of its staff to 60% of the time, despite the lack of evidence for the benefits of doing so.

Let’s talk about Amazon for a moment. The tech behemoth’s three-day in-office requirement hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. With a senior executive conceding it hasn’t “been perfect” and 30,000 workers signing an anti-return-to-office petition, the company still thought it wise to empower managers to fire those who refuse to comply with its hybrid mandate.

The Employees Strike Back Against RTO Mandates

Now, let’s layer in some more compelling data that amplifies just how much employees value flexibility. A recent BCG survey laid it bare: nine in 10 global office-based workers consider flexible work crucial when job-hunting. Employees disenchanted with their current work model are 2.5 times more likely to consider leaving within the next year. So why are leaders choosing to ignore these glaring signals?

According to a report from Owl Labs, a staggering 62% of employees would accept a pay cut of 10% or more just to maintain the ability to work remotely or in a hybrid setting. Owl Labs leader Frank Weishaupt asserted that as technology evolves, the adoption of hybrid and remote work is not merely a trend but a seismic shift in organizational behavior. Frank attributes the momentum behind this paradigm shift to one fundamental factor: happiness. Employees are not just more productive but also happier when they have the latitude to sculpt their work environment.

These figures should be a siren call for any leader orchestrating a retreat to office-centric work. When a majority of your talent pool is willing to take a financial hit to preserve their work-life balance, it’s more than a trend—it’s a clarion call for a new social contract between employers and employees. Ignoring this can have real-world consequences, ranging from a hollowed-out talent pipeline to a disengaged workforce. So, who’s really winning when companies decide to turn the dial back on flexible work arrangements?

The Data-Backed Optimum for Employee Engagement

Before leaders rush to imprint their will on company policies, they should pay close attention to a revelatory study from Gallup. The data doesn’t just suggest, it lays bare that the sweet spot for employee engagement lies in a two to three days on-site workweek. 

Beyond this balanced approach, the numbers reveal an alarming drop in engagement rates. For highly collaborative jobs that benefit from real-time interactions, engagement plunges from 49% to a lackluster 40% when the office time goes from three to four days a week. Engagement for more independent roles takes a dive from 39% to 34% when these roles are confined to an office setting for four days instead of three days.

This is not merely a numbers game; it’s a psychological dynamic that can ricochet through the corridors of an organization, well-known by now through the term “quiet quitting.” When engagement dips, so does productivity, creativity, and ultimately, profitability. The Gallup data serves as a glaring red flag that increasing time in the office beyond a balanced threshold can lead to burnout and a higher intent to leave the organization. Are leaders really prepared to stake their companies’ future on policies that actively erode the foundations of employee engagement and organizational health?

It’s not simply retention and engagement that are endangered: it’s innovation and progress. The EY Technology Pulse Poll recently revealed that an overwhelming 78% of high-ranking technology executives contend that remote work environments are actually conducive to sparking innovation. Ken Englund of EY suggested that’s because remote work not only obliterates geographical limitations in talent acquisition but also recharges the workforce by eradicating the grind of daily commuting.

This insight couples alarmingly well with the previously discussed Owl Labs report. Employees don’t just want flexibility—they’re empirically proven to work better within its confines. It stands to reason then, that any deviation towards old-school, rigid work schedules isn’t merely ignoring employee preferences; it’s actively undermining the data-proven pathways to a healthy, robust, and engaged organization. leaders must ask themselves: Is enforcing greater in-office attendance worth the cascading repercussions it triggers, including eroding trust, diminishing engagement, and ultimately, draining talent?

Boiling the Frog on RTO Mandates: A Losing Strategy

The notion of boiling the frog represents a stealthy but dangerous approach. Laszlo Bock, former Google HR chief and current leader of Humu, suggested that this method is designed to subtly erode hybrid mandates, aiming to make the office-centric schedule the new normal. But here’s the kicker: It might be a pyrrhic victory for leaders, as Bock warns that this approach could actually destroy trust and morale.

It’s becoming increasingly evident that by reverting to pre-pandemic norms, leaders may be sacrificing the long-term well-being of their organizations for immediate gains. Fostering a culture that doesn’t adapt to the changing work landscape is a gamble. Is it worth rolling the dice when employee satisfaction, productivity, and even mental health are at stake?

While another day in the office might seem trivial to some, it’s a significant shift in policy that ripples across various facets of organizational dynamics—from employee engagement and trust to talent retention. If we assess the costs holistically, it’s not just about losing a day of remote work; it’s about disregarding the preferences of a workforce that has tasted the freedom and effectiveness of a more flexible model.

Seizing Competitive Advantage

It’s time for companies to buck the trend. Some forward-thinking organizations are already embracing permanent remote work or extremely flexible hybrid models, and they’re reaping the benefits in employee satisfaction and productivity. leaders clinging to the past need to ask themselves: Is the temporary thrill of control worth the long-term sacrifice of losing the talent wars, a company full of quiet quitters, and the decimation of innovation?

Traditionalist leaders may think they’re boiling the frog slowly, but my clients who have veered off that well-trodden path are showcasing that embracing a modern hybrid work environment is not just possible but remarkably rewarding. One of my clients, a Fortune 500 company in the tech sector, took the plunge by committing to a flexible hybrid model, and the dividends have been remarkable. Despite initial resistance from upper management, they decided to trust the data over gut instinct. Not only did they see a 15% increase in overall productivity within the first six months, but they also noticed a 22% boost in employee engagement metrics. They’ve become a magnet for top-tier talent who are fleeing more rigid competitors.

Consider another case: a mid-size financial services firm in the New York City area was feeling the heat of high attrition rates. They decided to counter the trend of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan and adopt a flexible hybrid model. The result? They not only reversed the attrition trend but also increased quarterly profits by 11%, an upswing they directly attribute to heightened employee engagement and innovation.

Lastly, the largest law firm in a Midwestern city became a surprising torchbearer. Skeptical at first, they conducted a six-month trial period of a flexible work model. The outcome was unambiguous: a 35% drop in the use of sick days, a 17% boost in retention, and a 20% uptick in billable hours, effectively quashing every preconceived notion about the inefficacy of remote work in the legal sector.

So while traditionalist leaders are stuck playing checkers, my visionary clients are playing 3D chess. They’re not only responding to employee needs but also using the hybrid and remote work models as strategic assets. The results speak for themselves: higher employee satisfaction, greater innovation, and, yes, a healthier bottom line. If that’s not future-proofing a company, I don’t know what is.


So, are we going to let the frog boil? It’s time for corporate America to recognize that what seemed like a temporary disruption in the work environment has paved the way for transformative, sustainable change. leaders, take note: Turning back the clock could very well be a ticking time bomb for your organization’s future.

Key Take-Away

Traditionalist leaders enforcing RTO mandates risk losing talent and engagement, as employees highly value flexible work arrangements. Ignoring this shift could harm innovation and organizational health. Share on X

Image credit: RDNE Stock project/Pexels

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio. In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at