The Crisis of Silence in RTO

5 min read

In the corporate jungle, a crisis of silence brews. It’s not about profit margins or market shares, but something far more critical – the tug-of-war between CEOs and their employees over the return to the office (RTO). The core question echoes in empty corridors: Are leaders truly tuning into their employees’ voices?

The Silent Voices in the Office Landscape

Recent surveys paint a startling picture. A recent study by Eagle Hill Consulting found that a mere 31% of employees felt their preferences for remote and hybrid work were sought by their organizations. This lack of dialogue is more than just a missed opportunity for employee engagement – it’s a potential ticking time bomb for staff retention. 

Almost half of the workforce (47%) admitted they would consider leaving if their need for flexible work arrangements wasn’t met. That’s a startling increase from 43% just six months earlier, surprising given the deteriorating economic situation. Those results aligned with another timely survey from Monster, which found that 41% of respondents said they’d quit if forced to go to the office full-time. That might not bode well for Boeing or the state government of Nevada, which have recently demanded a full-time return to office.

In turn, CBRE finds an even more dramatic result in its recent report. A shocking 81% of respondents to their survey say leadership expectations and employee behavior on flexible work are out of sync. And the vast majority of the organizations where the leadership expectations and employee behavior are aligned – 89% – are smaller organizations that have less than 6 million sq. ft. of office space, meaning that the largest organizations have the most disconnect.

Insights from Human Resources

The NORC at the University of Chicago brings more insights. According to their surveys, less than half of employees are happy or comfortable with the idea of returning to their usual workplaces. HR representatives are sounding the alarm – retaining staff who resist returning to the office is becoming a significant, and in some cases, a major problem.

So, what’s the solution? The NORC surveys offer some answers. Employees aren’t shy about their desires. Additional pay for in-office work is a top motivator, but it doesn’t stop there. Perks like food, amenities, commuter benefits, and increased interaction with company leadership also rank high. Hybrid workers echo similar sentiments.

For many, the reluctance to return to the office stems from the loss of flexibility and the work-life balance they’ve come to cherish while working remotely. The ease and productivity of working from home are undeniable factors, as is the time and cost associated with commuting.

Despite these clear indicators, few employers have stepped up with incentives. While some private sector companies are experimenting with enticements like social events, in-office social spaces, and free snacks, these efforts are not widespread. Government and nonprofit sectors lag behind, often not offering any new policies or incentives.

Cognitive Biases: Understanding Leadership Reluctance

In exploring the reluctance of leaders to provide incentives for office return and to listen to their staff’s concerns, we must delve into the realm of cognitive biases. These biases, deeply ingrained in our decision-making processes, often operate subconsciously, influencing leaders’ attitudes and actions in ways they might not even realize.

Status quo bias, a preference for the existing state of affairs, is particularly potent in organizational settings. Leaders, accustomed to traditional office environments, may find it challenging to embrace the seismic shift towards remote or hybrid models. This bias can lead to a resistance to change, manifesting in a reluctance to offer incentives for office return. The familiar rhythm of a bustling office, face-to-face meetings, and the perceived ease of oversight can create a comfort zone that’s hard to leave, even in the face of mounting evidence that employee preferences have evolved.

The halo effect, where one positive attribute of a person or thing influences the overall perception of it, can also influence leaders’ views on incentives. If a leader has a particularly positive view of the traditional office environment, believing it to be crucial for productivity and company culture, this perception might overshadow the practical benefits of remote or hybrid work models. As a result, they might downplay or overlook the need for incentives to encourage office return, clinging to the belief that the office’s inherent value should be motivation enough.

Recognizing these biases is the first step in overcoming them. Leaders need to actively challenge their preconceptions and be open to the evolving needs of their workforce. It requires a shift from a mindset focused on control and tradition to one that values flexibility, autonomy, and employee well-being. This doesn’t just benefit employees; it can lead to a more resilient, adaptable, and ultimately successful organization.

Understanding these cognitive biases provides crucial insights into why leaders might be reluctant to offer incentives or listen to their staff regarding returning to the office. Recognizing and addressing these biases can pave the way for more empathetic, effective leadership and a workplace that aligns with the modern workforce’s needs and expectations.

Case Studies

Having consulted for over two dozen companies in helping them figure out their future of work models, I’ve frequently seen the failure to survey and listen to employees, and even more so failing to provide the right incentives for RTO. A mid-size professional services company with approximately 2,000 employees was facing significant resistance to their RTO mandates. The leadership had not sought employee input, leading to widespread dissatisfaction. After my consultancy was brought in, we initiated a comprehensive survey to understand employee preferences and concerns. The insights gained led to a series of leadership workshops focusing on the importance of employee feedback in decision-making. As a result, the company implemented a flexible hybrid work model and introduced incentives like enhanced childcare support and flexible hours. This approach not only improved employee morale but also resulted in a noticeable increase in productivity and a decrease in turnover rates.

A large financial services firm, with over 10,000 employees globally, struggled with low engagement scores due to their rigid RTO policies. Our consultancy’s intervention began with facilitating focus groups to gather direct employee feedback. This process revealed a significant gap between leadership assumptions and employee needs. We then guided the leadership in developing a more flexible work model, introducing incentives like subsidized home office setups and additional paid time off. The new approach fostered a more inclusive work environment, leading to higher job satisfaction and a boost in team performance.

A fast-growing tech startup, with around 500 employees, faced challenges with staff retention due to their inflexible office-centric policies. Our consultancy’s involvement began with an in-depth analysis of current workplace dynamics and employee satisfaction levels. Through a series of interactive workshops, we helped the leadership understand the value of employee input in shaping work policies. The company subsequently rolled out a new hybrid work model, coupled with incentives such as stock options and performance-based bonuses. This shift not only improved staff retention but also positioned the company as an attractive employer in the competitive tech industry.

Next Action Steps for Leaders in Addressing Return-to-Office Challenges

For leaders facing challenges with RTO policies and employee engagement, the following action steps are crucial for moving forward:

  • Conduct Comprehensive Employee Surveys: Immediately initiate a company-wide survey to gather data on employee preferences regarding RTO, remote work, and hybrid models. Ensure anonymity to encourage honest feedback.
  • Analyze Survey Results Thoroughly: Once the survey data is collected, analyze it to understand the key concerns and preferences of your employees. Look for patterns and common themes that indicate what your workforce values most.
  • Hold Focus Group Discussions: Organize focus group discussions with representatives from different departments and levels within the company. These discussions can provide deeper insights into the survey data and reveal nuanced perspectives.
  • Engage in Leadership Workshops: Arrange workshops for the company’s leadership, focusing on the importance of employee feedback in decision-making. These workshops should also cover strategies for effective communication and change management.
  • Develop a Flexible Work Model: Based on the insights gained, develop a flexible work model that aligns with employee preferences.
  • Introduce Appropriate Incentives: Implement incentives that address the concerns and preferences highlighted by employees. These could range from financial benefits (like transport allowances or bonuses) to non-financial perks (such as flexible hours, wellness programs, or enhanced childcare support).
  • Communicate Changes Effectively: Clearly and transparently communicate the changes to the entire company. Ensure that employees understand the new policies and the rationale behind them. Open channels for feedback and questions.
  • Monitor and Adapt: After implementing the new policies, continuously monitor their impact. Be prepared to make adjustments based on further feedback and changing circumstances.
  • Foster an Inclusive Culture: Work towards creating a culture that values and respects diverse work preferences and styles. Encourage an environment where feedback is not just solicited but also acted upon.
  • Measure Impact and Share Successes: Regularly measure the impact of these changes on employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. Share these successes with the team to reinforce the positive aspects of the new work model.

By following these steps, leaders can create a more engaged, satisfied, and productive workforce, aligning their RTO strategies with the evolving needs and preferences of their employees.

The Bottom Line: Listening is Key

The message is clear: employees want their voices heard. They’re not just looking for perks; they’re seeking a genuine understanding of their needs and preferences. CEOs and business leaders must start by engaging in meaningful dialogues with their staff. It’s not just about offering incentives; it’s about creating an environment where employees feel valued and heard.

The future of work isn’t just about where we work; it’s about how we work together. Understanding and addressing employees’ concerns and preferences can lead to a more engaged, satisfied, and productive workforce. It’s time to start listening. The success of our businesses depends on it.

Key Take-Away

Leaders who don't seek out and listen to employees' concerns around RTO are putting their organizations at risk of disengagement and attrition. Share on X

Image credit: Ivan Samkov/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