The Great Return-To-Office Experiment: Why Are Some Workplaces More Up To This Task Than Others?

by | Nov 6, 2023 | CWA, Don't Be a Jerk, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Leadership, Positive Workplace, Strikes, Tech - Media, Union Organizing, Unions, White-Collar

Earlier this year, we discussed the hot-button issue of easing into Return To Office (RTO) policies, which still generate friction in this strange era that we live in now. Five years ago, who would have predicted this? Yet here we are, having watched companies including Google, Meta, Disney, Apple, Amazon, and Chipotle implement various mandates for full-time workers to return to the office. Most were met with some degree of resistance.

At Farmers Insurance, the RTO push grew messy with workers threatening to form a union after the rollback of a 2022 policy, which held that “most” full-time workers could remain long-term remote. Given that some workers made life-altering decisions due to that policy, this example will likely be reflected upon as a learning experience, should the U.S. ever enter another period where most white-collar workers go remote again.

Some workplaces have achieved RTO with virtually no scuffles, but that appears to be an exception. A recent Conference Board survey indicated that three-quarters of companies with RTO mandates have had trouble retaining workers.

Yep, the Great RTO Experiment continues with more conflict:

  • 700 New York Times tech workers went on strike in late October over the company’s RTO mandate. Recently, those workers unionized with the News Guild of New York, part of the CWA. The union alleges that the RTO policy is being used as a means of intimidation.
  • Dating app Grindr issued a particularly dramatic requirement for workers to choose paths within two weeks: declare plans to return to the office or leave their jobs with severance. Many of these workers – who were also in the process of organizing with CWA – were hired as remote employees and would have had to relocate to a hub city. Very quickly, 80 out of 178 workers left their jobs.

Shocking? Perhaps not. The tech sector’s recently plentiful layoffs have fueled speculation that Grindr’s hardline RTO Mandate was actually a round of “soft layoffs,” wherein workers weeded themselves out of the game. We will probably never know the truth of that matter, but of course, companies do not want to lose their most valuable workers in such a way, which is proving to be a genuine problem with many RTO mandates.

How does a company retain its most effective workers while moving towards RTO? No one-size-fits-all answer exists, but workers will more readily embrace returning to a physical office if they feel that a business prioritizes their well-being.

Consider this: Business Insider recently quoted a Harvard professor who estimates the value of flexible work arrangements as “equivalent to an 8% raise.” If that’s true, then an RTO mandate would ideally include a few incentives to make up for losing that alleged 8%. In a big city with longer commutes, perks like free parking or meal vouchers go a long way. Companies can get creative according to what fits their situation.

Yet what seems most undeniable about the RTO era is how workers appreciate key aspects of flexibility. A few extra personal days or a hybrid structure could help in that department. And as always, open communication is key to building an enduringly positive workplace culture.


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