Return to Office Mandates are Folly…As Predicted

If you’ve read this column for a while, you may recall that almost three years ago I shared why back-to-office mandates wouldn’t work. I explained that the kinds of people most needed by companies—self-starters, creative types who need their freedoms—are less likely to stay when told “you have to,” especially without any say in the matter. Sadly, certain corners did not take my wisdom, and the mandates continued.

Now research is proving these mandates reduce employee morale and increase the likelihood of employee loss with no earnings or stock price benefit. Moreover, mandates are harming women in particular, even as it turns out many workers are ignoring the mandates in any case.

In a December 2023 study of 457 S&P 500 companies, including their 4,455 quarterly earnings reports, researchers at the University of Pittsburg’s Katz Graduate School of Business found no difference in financial performance between companies with mandates and those without. They did however find a greater likelihood for employees at mandate companies to look for other employment.

But the real burn is that—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—fewer workers are back in the office than a year ago, despite increased mandates by companies. I know of companies where only one-quarter to one-third of employees are complying with three-day-a-week mandates, according to badging data.

Finally, remote work brought back millions of women to the workforce, and those companies bucking the return-to-office trend are benefitting. Allstate, which still allows remote work, saw a 12 percent increase in female applicants in 2023, according to the Wall Street Journal.

To be sure, there are great reasons to have people return to the office, including culture building, training, mentoring, camaraderie and serendipity. It’s just that forcing the return to office, especially without first listening, taking in ideas, being open to learning and understanding where employees are…it’s folly. It’s failed change.

If we run our organizations well, we know we lost control long ago. This is now a world where sphere of influence—and the skills required to grow our sphere of influence as leaders—are at a premium. It’s no longer about sphere of control.

Of course, please don’t shoot the messenger!

Let me know what you think. I look forward to being in touch.

Al Comeaux

Primed for Change Community

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