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What Are the Pros and Cons of RTO?

woman stressed while looking at computer screen

A new report revealed that employees strongly oppose return-to-office (RTO) mandates—with many believing that the requirements are a way for their employers to exert control over them.

 But some workplace experts say there are benefits to working in the office employees might not be considering. It can pay to offer workers "a degree of choice."

A survey of 4,200 U.S. workers by MyPerfectResume found that 77 percent of employees think their employers are pressuring their workforce to RTO to have greater oversight on how workers spend their time during the workday.

“These results are fairly unsurprising, given that only 2 percent of people stated that they prefer to work full-time onsite,” said Kellie Hanna, a career expert at MyPerfectResume.

Among employees surveyed:

  • 72 percent said their employer believes working onsite will improve productivity.
  • 71 percent believed the push to RTO is because employers think it will improve communication and collaboration.
  • 64 percent believed their employer wants them back in the office because they don’t trust people to do their work remotely.

Hanna explained that some employer justifications for RTO policies include concerns about employee engagement, the belief that a lack of face-to-face interactions can negatively impact communication and collaboration, or the fear that company culture suffers without in-person interactions.

However, she added that these policies could have unintended negative consequences for companies.

“Besides the obvious cost of maintaining a physical office space, RTO mandates can lead to increased levels of employee dissatisfaction, negatively impact an organization’s ability to retain top talent, and even lead to potential decreases in productivity, as some studies have suggested that workers are actually more productive in a remote environment,” Hanna said.

Some Black Employees Don’t Want to Return to Office

Hanna outlined some subtle ways that companies can pressure their employees to RTO. For example, some managers might micromanage remote workers more heavily than in-office staff, which can make remote work unnecessarily stressful.

Additionally, employers could limit development opportunities for remote employees, instead prioritizing in-office employees for promotions, leadership opportunities or participation in important projects.

Black workers, who have historically struggled to ascend professionally due to myriad factors beyond their control, are a group that has shown discontent with RTO mandates.

A 2023 survey of more than 10,000 workers across the globe revealed that just 3 percent of Black white-collar employees wanted to return to full-time in-office work, compared with 21 percent of their white counterparts.

Many Black employees believe returning to the office will lead to an uptick in experiencing microaggressions, such as being left out of important meetings, being the target of racial epithets or receiving comments about their personal appearance.

Janice Gassam Asare, a diversity and inclusion consultant and public speaker in New York City, said mandating employees to return to the office is a “hard sell” for workers who may be the only Black employee in their workplace.

“Being remote provides a shield from the harm that is often experienced by nonwhite employees at the hands of their white counterparts,” she told SHRM Online in 2023.

There Are Benefits to Returning to the Office

Megan Pierouchakos, senior director of advisory at professional services and research firm Seramount in Washington, D.C., said that some companies want workers to RTO due to “significant real estate investments.” Organizations may also require RTO due to state or local tax implications that prohibit the company from having workers that are dispersed.

Returning to the office also has advantages for employees, she added. Pierouchakos laid out five benefits to working in the office:

  • Being physically present allows for spontaneous conversations, brainstorming sessions, and face-to-face collaboration.
  • Meeting colleagues in person fosters relationships, trust and camaraderie.
  • It’s easier to understand nonverbal cues and build rapport when working side by side.
  • Returning to the office increases visibility to senior management, making it easier for leaders to recognize and appreciate an employee’s contributions.
  • Office settings facilitate networking with colleagues from different departments, potentially leading to career growth.

Recent research by Seramount found that 74 percent of Generation Z employees prefer some type of hybrid work arrangement, compared with 52 percent of all other employee demographics. Just 11 percent of Gen Z respondents preferred to be fully remote compared with 34 percent of other workers.

[SHRM Online: How to Implement an Effective Return-to-Office Strategy]

What Should Companies Do?

While RTO might be effective for certain roles or individuals, it’s essential for employers to recognize that productivity and engagement can vary based on personal preferences, job functions and work styles, Pierouchakos said.

“Not everyone thrives in a traditional office environment,” she said. “It can also limit access to underrepresented talent, especially for companies who are striving to be more inclusive in their recruitment efforts.”

She noted that companies must adapt and be flexible. They must realize that different groups have different needs—from working parents to people with disabilities—and should prepare RTO policies that cater to their needs or risk losing out on talent.

“At Seramount, we advise our partners to ask their employees about RTO with the expectation that they will listen and act accordingly,” she explained, noting that this strategy “builds trust between the employer and employee.”

Hanna said organizations intent on implementing RTO mandates should explain their reasoning to the workforce and continue to offer employees a “degree of choice” with their working arrangements. As she explained, such flexibility “can positively impact both your workforce and your organization as a whole.”


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