The Real Reasons That Leaders Disregard Data in RTO Decisions

7 min read
RTO Decisions

It seems like every day, a new headline flashes across our screens: another company is rolling back the clock on employee flexibility, calling workers back to the office for three, four, or even five days a week, as Boeing announced recently. Company leaders justify these decisions with the mantra of boosting productivity and enhancing company bottom lines. This trend has long piqued my curiosity as a hybrid work expert. That’s because we’ve seen increasing evidence that highlights the myriad benefits of workplace flexibility, not just in enhancing productivity but also in bolstering employee engagement and catalyzing company growth.

However, recent research from the Professor of Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh Mark Ma and his graduate student Yuye Ding uncovers the real reasons that so many leaders disregard all the data in their RTO decisions. This study uncovers a startling reality: RTO decisions stem less from concrete evidence or a belief in enhancing firm value and more about managerial control dynamics and using employees as scapegoats for unsatisfactory firm performance. Contrary to the claims of improving firm value, RTO fails to positively impact financial performance. Instead, as the study and my interview with Dr. Ma reveals, the research paints a concerning picture of declining employee satisfaction in the wake of these mandates, without any corresponding uplift in financial metrics or overall firm value. This revelation opens a new chapter in the ongoing debate about the future of work, challenging leaders to reconsider the true impact of their RTO policies.

The Data On Flexible Work and RTO Decisions

Extensive data illustrates the multiple benefits of flexible work. Hubstaff’s report sheds light on the overlooked efficiency of remote work, revealing that remote employees engage in deeper work with fewer interruptions, effectively saving an estimated 62 hours annually from distractions typical in office settings. This finding directly counters the narrative that in-office work is more productive. Similarly, contrary to the common rationalization behind RTO, research by Thumbtack highlights that 74% of workers report increased productivity in virtual environments. This sentiment is echoed by 75% of senior leaders, who also find virtual work environments more conducive to focus and quality work, away from the distractions of office politics. 

The Talent Insights report from Aquent underscores this notion, with data showing that 66% of remote teams are identified as high-performing, compared to just 47% of on-site teams. These teams not only embrace remote work but also value diversity and innovation, adapting more effectively to change. A McKinsey report further supports these findings, indicating that top-performing employees, the “thriving stars,” are more likely to flourish in hybrid and remote-working models than in mostly in-person environments. IWG’s research reveals that 89% of U.S. CEOs with hybrid working arrangements have observed direct cost savings, including reduced office space and amenities. Notably, 96% believe their reputation as CEO has improved due to implementing hybrid working, with significant benefits in employee happiness, productivity, retention, and attraction.

In turn, research shows the harmful impact of forceful, inflexible, top-down RTO mandates that don’t have employee buy-in. McLean & Company’s Return-to-Office Playbook warns against the risks of a one-size-fits-all RTO approach, which can lead to increased turnover, disengagement, and reduced productivity. WorkReduce’s data highlights the challenges posed by rigid RTO, including hiring challenges and low morale leading to churn and low retention. Unispace’s Returning for Good report found that nearly half (42%) of companies with RTO mandates witnessed a higher level of employee attrition than they had anticipated. Finally, the Q4 2023 Scoop Flex Index provides compelling evidence that companies embracing flexible work arrangements are not just surviving but thriving. Fully flexible public companies have shown a 16% lead in revenue growth over their less flexible peers, even when excluding tech companies from the data.

Behind the Facade of RTO Decisions

In light of this overwhelming evidence favoring the benefits of flexibility, the persistence of RTO mandates appears increasingly disconnected from the realities of the modern workforce. That’s where Dr. Ma’s study provides an insightful look behind the facade of strict RTO mandates.

The investigation focuses on Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 firms with RTO mandates, offering a detailed analysis of the determinants and consequences of these policies. The study examines three potential reasons for RTO mandates.

The first hypothesis scrutinized in Dr. Ma’s study addresses the most frequently cited justification for RTO mandates by executives: the belief that these mandates are crucial for enhancing employee productivity, improving overall firm performance, and, ultimately, increasing firm value. This rationale, often presented as a straightforward and logical approach, posits that bringing employees back into the office environment will catalyze a more collaborative, efficient, and productive workforce, thereby driving the company’s financial success.

However, the study’s findings present a stark contradiction to this widely held narrative. In a data-driven analysis, the scholars examined whether there was a tangible link between CEOs’ personal financial stakes in their companies and their propensity to enforce RTO mandates. Conventional wisdom would suggest that CEOs with substantial stock ownership would naturally favor any policy, such as RTO mandates, that they believe would enhance the value of their firms. Their personal financial incentives would align closely with the company’s success, making them more likely to support and implement strategies they perceive as beneficial to the company’s bottom line.

Yet, the findings of the study paint a different picture. The researchers uncovered no significant correlation between the level of stock ownership by CEOs and the likelihood of implementing RTO mandates. This lack of correlation is particularly striking, as it suggests that the decision to mandate RTO is not predominantly influenced by a belief in its financial benefits, at least not in the way executives often claim.

Second, the study explores an alternative, more Machiavellian explanation for the persistence of RTO mandates, suggesting that managers might employ them as a strategic tool to divert blame for poor firm performance. This perspective posits that RTO mandates are less about enhancing productivity or firm value and more about providing a convenient scapegoat for organizational shortcomings.

Interestingly, the study uncovers a notable correlation between RTO mandates and poor stock performance among S&P 500 companies. This correlation is critical because it aligns with the hypothesis of RTO mandates used as a diversionary tactic. When a company’s stock performance is faltering, managers might feel pressured to demonstrate decisive action. Instituting an RTO mandate offers a tangible measure, signaling to shareholders and the market that management is taking steps to rectify the situation. By shifting the narrative towards employees’ supposed lack of productivity in remote settings, managers deflect attention from other potential causes of poor performance, such as strategic missteps or managerial inefficiencies.

This blame-shifting hypothesis gains further credibility when considering the behavior of firms with higher institutional ownership. Institutional investors, such as mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance companies, are generally more sophisticated and informed than individual investors. These investors likely have greater access to detailed information about a company’s operations and performance and are more adept at analyzing the true drivers of firm value. The study finds that companies with a higher proportion of such informed investors are less likely to implement RTO mandates. This trend suggests that when a company’s shareholder base is more likely to see through superficial measures, managers are less inclined to use RTO mandates as a smokescreen for poor performance.

The third and perhaps most intriguing hypothesis explored in the study delves into the psychology of leadership within organizations. It suggests that RTO mandates may serve as a mechanism for managers, particularly those inclined towards authoritative control, to reassert their dominance over employees. This hypothesis moves beyond financial and strategic rationales and enters the realm of organizational power dynamics and leadership styles.

The study’s findings lend considerable weight to this hypothesis. A significant pattern emerged: companies led by what the researchers call power-seeking CEOs – males who command notably higher salaries compared to the next highest paid executive at the company – are more likely to enforce top-down RTO mandates. This disparity in compensation, according to the scholars, often indicates a consolidated power structure within the organization, where the CEO wields substantial influence over company decisions.

This finding strongly suggests that RTO mandates often stem from a desire for control and power rather than from calculated strategies aimed at improving firm performance. In such scenarios, the RTO mandate becomes a tool for CEOs to reestablish traditional power dynamics, which the shift to remote work diluted. Remote work, by its nature, offers employees a degree of autonomy and flexibility that diminishes the immediate, visible control managers have over their teams. By mandating a return to the office, these CEOs attempt to regain the direct oversight and influence more easily exerted in a traditional office setting.

This power dynamic explanation for RTO mandates offers a stark contrast to the narrative of strategic business decisions aimed at enhancing productivity or firm value. It challenges organizations to reflect on their leadership models and consider whether traditional power dynamics align with the evolving expectations and preferences of the workforce. It suggests a need for a shift towards more inclusive, empathetic, and flexible leadership styles that acknowledge the benefits of flexible work. Moreover, it demonstrates the need for investors to reign in the worst impulses of power-seeking CEOs. 

Impact of RTO Decisions on Employees and Shareholders

The comprehensive nature of the study extends to a critical examination of the impact of RTO mandates on two key stakeholders: employees and shareholders. This part of the analysis offers tangible evidence of the real-world consequences of these mandates, beyond the theoretical and psychological motivations of corporate leaders.

One of the most telling findings of the study relates to employee satisfaction. Using a wealth of data from Glassdoor, the study rigorously assesses how RTO mandates influence employees’ perceptions and experiences in their workplaces. The stark results align with previous research, finding a significant decline in overall job satisfaction, work-life balance, and views on senior management following the implementation of RTO mandates.

These findings bear particular significance in the context of the often-cited rationale for RTO mandates: that bringing employees back to the office fosters better collaboration, enhances company culture, and, by extension, improves overall job satisfaction and work-life balance. However, the study’s data contradicts this claim, indicating that employees actually feel less satisfied with their jobs, have worse work-life balance, and hold a less favorable view of senior management in the wake of RTO mandates.

Another critical area explored in the study: the effect of RTO mandates on firm performance and market value. This analysis directly confronts one of the primary justifications for RTO mandates posited by managers, namely the belief that such policies lead to improved company performance and, consequently, increase shareholder value.

Contrary to these managerial claims, the study finds no significant improvement in the financial performance or market value of firms following the enforcement of RTO mandates. This finding challenges the core argument often used to justify the shift back to office-centric work models. The lack of observable financial benefits from RTO mandates undermines the argument for their efficacy as a strategy for boosting firm performance.

The Blindspots Underpinning Poor Leadership RTO Decisions

We gain further clarity on the dynamics surrounding RTO mandates and their acceptance or rejection by corporate leaders by examining specific cognitive biases. Biases refer to dangerous judgment errors that stem from the wiring of our minds, leading us to make poor decisions when going with our gut reactions. Two biases, in particular, play a crucial role in the context of RTO mandates: status quo bias and confirmation bias.

Leaders often exhibit status quo bias, a tendency to prefer existing conditions and resist changes. This bias manifests in the adherence to traditional office-centric models despite compelling evidence suggesting the effectiveness of remote or hybrid work arrangements. Comfort and familiarity with pre-pandemic work environments lead leaders to overlook the potential benefits of new work models. Consequently, they often default to known practices, ignoring the changing needs of the workforce and evolving work culture trends. For example, a leader accustomed to the traditional office setup might ignore data indicating higher productivity and employee satisfaction in remote settings, favoring the familiar over potentially more effective new models. This bias leads to a misalignment between a company’s policies and the evolving needs of its workforce, as well as emerging trends in work culture and technology.

Confirmation bias also plays a critical role in shaping leaders’ approaches to RTO mandates. This bias leads them to seek, interpret, and prioritize information that aligns with their preexisting beliefs. When deciding between continuing remote work policies or enforcing RTO mandates, leaders often unconsciously cherry-pick evidence supporting their preferred action while disregarding contradictory data. A CEO who believes in the necessity of in-office work for collaboration, for instance, might focus on studies or anecdotal evidence that uphold this view, overlooking substantial data supporting the effectiveness of remote work. This selective focus on confirming evidence results in decisions that reflect personal biases more than a comprehensive evaluation of all available information.


While helping over two dozen companies figure out their hybrid and remote work models and RTO policies, I frequently felt frustrated with managers stubbornly insisting on rigid, top-down mandates by citing a supposed productivity and firm financial performance benefit. They refused to listen to the reams of solid data countering their perspectives, and clung to outdated beliefs. Dr. Ma’s study provides a research-driven perspective explaining why they do so and offers an evidence-informed tool to counter their power-seeking, blame-shifting behaviors. Fortunately, plenty of more moral corporate leaders committed to ethical behavior are willing to counter such misconduct, along with investors who have financial incentives to not tolerate such shenanigans, if they have tools to assess the reality of the situation. Using this study as ammunition for such assessments, they can help reverse the harmful tendencies of blame-shifting, power-hungry executives to pursue hard-nosed RTO policies that don’t help company bottom lines while undermining employee engagement, well-being, and retention.

Key Take-Away

RTO decisions are often a way to divert blame for poor firm performance, not to achieve productivity gains. Click To Tweet

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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