What’s the corporate control agenda behind RTO?

In the evolving landscape of workplace dynamics, the trend towards revoking employee flexibility and mandating returns to the office (RTO) is gaining traction among corporations.

This is evidenced by significant players like Boeing enforcing near-full-week office attendance. Leaders often cite the enhancement of productivity and financial outcomes as the driving force behind these decisions.

However, this trend raises questions, especially given the growing body of evidence supporting the advantages of flexible work arrangements in terms of productivity, employee engagement, and organizational growth.

Recent research led by Professor Mark Ma from the University of Pittsburgh, alongside his graduate student Yuye Ding, sheds light on the complex reasons behind the adherence to RTO mandates by organizational leaders, revealing motivations that diverge significantly from the commonly stated objectives of improved productivity and financial performance.

Their research, as Dr. Ma told me in our interview, indicates that the push for RTO is more closely associated with managerial desires for control and a tendency to attribute organizational underperformance to the workforce, rather than evidence-based strategies aimed at enhancing corporate value.

What does the data on RTO show?

Contrary to the prevalent narrative, the extensive data on flexible working arrangements illustrate significant benefits. Reports from organizations like Hubstaff and Thumbtack reveal that remote work can lead to higher efficiency and productivity, challenging the assumption that physical office presence is inherently more productive.

Furthermore, insights from McKinsey and Aquent highlight that remote and hybrid models can foster high-performing teams and support diversity and innovation, contributing to organizational adaptability and success.

However, the imposition of rigid, top-down RTO mandates without employee consensus can have detrimental effects, including increased turnover and diminished morale, as outlined in the Return-to-Office Playbook by McLean & Company and other industry research. These findings underscore the disconnect between the perceived and actual outcomes of enforced RTO policies.

Dr. Ma’s study delves deeper into the motivations behind RTO decisions among S&P 500 companies, challenging the conventional wisdom that these mandates are primarily aimed at boosting productivity and firm value.

The research does not find a significant link between CEOs’ financial stakes in their companies and the implementation of RTO policies, suggesting that financial incentives may not be the primary driver of these decisions.

Are RTO mandates a diversionary tactic by management to shift blame?

The study also explores the notion that RTO mandates might serve as a diversionary tactic by management to shift blame for poor organizational performance away from strategic or managerial shortcomings and onto the workforce.

This hypothesis is supported by a correlation between RTO mandates and poor stock performance, indicating that such mandates might be used to signal action to shareholders and the market, despite their questionable efficacy in addressing the root causes of underperformance.

Moreover, the research suggests that RTO mandates may reflect a desire among certain leaders to reassert control and authority within the organization, particularly in cases where CEOs exhibit power-seeking behavior, as evidenced by significant salary disparities within the executive team.

This perspective highlights the role of organizational power dynamics and the potential for RTO policies to serve as instruments for reinforcing traditional hierarchical structures, at odds with the trend towards greater autonomy and flexibility facilitated by remote work.

What are the consequences of RTO policies on employee wellbeing and organizational value?

The research extends into a meticulous evaluation of how RTO mandates affect crucial organizational stakeholders, specifically employees and shareholders, providing concrete insights into the tangible impacts of these policies. A pivotal aspect of this analysis involves employee satisfaction, where the study leverages extensive data from platforms like Glassdoor to gauge the repercussions of RTO mandates on employee sentiment.

The findings reveal a notable deterioration in job satisfaction, work-life balance, and perceptions of senior management post-RTO implementation. These outcomes challenge the conventional wisdom that RTO enhances collaboration and company culture, suggesting instead that such mandates may detrimentally affect employee morale and organizational harmony.

Furthermore, the study scrutinizes the impact of RTO mandates on organizational financial performance and market valuation, directly addressing the prevalent managerial assertion that RTO policies inherently bolster firm productivity and shareholder value.

Contradicting these claims, the research uncovers no significant evidence that RTO mandates contribute positively to the financial metrics or market standing of firms.

This revelation critically undermines the foundational arguments often employed to advocate for a return to traditional office-centric work models, highlighting a misalignment between RTO rationales and their actual organizational outcomes.

The study illustrates the cognitive biases influencing leadership decisions regarding RTO policies, particularly the  status quo bias and confirmation bias. Status quo bias, characterized by a preference for existing conditions and a resistance to change, leads leaders to cling to familiar office-centric models despite evidence supporting the efficacy of alternative work arrangements.

This inclination towards the familiar can cause leaders to disregard evolving workforce needs and emerging workplace trends, potentially stifacing innovation and adaptability within the organization.

Confirmation bias further compounds decision-making challenges, with leaders selectively acknowledging information that reinforces their preconceived notions about work models. This bias can skew the evaluation of remote versus in-office work, leading to decisions that favor personal beliefs over objective analysis of comprehensive data.

Such biased decision-making processes risk enacting policies that may not align with the best interests of the workforce or the organization’s long-term strategic goals.

What are the implications for HR professionals and organizational leaders?

The insights from this study serve as a critical resource for HR professionals and organizational leaders, offering a research-based perspective to challenge and reconsider the efficacy and motivations behind RTO mandates.

As HR practitioners navigate the complexities of shaping workplace policies in a post-pandemic world, understanding the nuanced impacts of RTO decisions on employee satisfaction and organizational performance becomes paramount. This knowledge empowers HR professionals to advocate for more evidence-based, flexible, and inclusive work arrangements that align with both employee wellbeing and organizational objectives.

This comprehensive study not only sheds light on the real-world implications of RTO mandates but also equips HR professionals and organizational leaders with the knowledge and tools to critically evaluate and shape future workplace policies.

By leveraging these insights, organizations can strive towards creating work environments that are conducive to both employee fulfillment and organizational success, challenging the status quo and embracing the potential of flexible work models.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps tech and finance industry executives drive collaboration, innovation, and retention in hybrid work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts

He is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams. His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles in prominent venues such asHarvard Business Review, Fortune, and Forbes

His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.