Opinion | Ready to Mandate a Return to Office: Take It Slow and Know What ‘Problem’ You’re Trying to Solve

By: | February 24, 2023

Michelle Kerr is Workers’ Compensation Editor and National Conference Chair for Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected].

HR Memo: Beginning next week, you will be expected to return to the office at least four days a week.

I know a few folks who would greet that announcement with joy, a few with pure panic. I’m probably in the latter category.

Forced return to office (RTO) is a touchy topic. According to employment site Zippia, 26% of U.S. employees now work remotely. But will that last?

Disney made waves recently by announcing it will require employees back in the office four days a week. Others have made similar moves.

Is your company having similar conversations? I have some advice to pass along.

For starters, think slowly. That comes from Mark DiMassimo, founder and creative chief of DiGo (DiMassimo Goldstein), a creative agency focused on helping organizations build positive behavior change.

DiMassimo and I chatted about the stirrings of forced RTO and what that might mean for workplace challenges.

An important observation of DiMassimo’s is that whatever “normal” we’ve achieved at this point … we really just got here. It’s only three years since an unprecedented volume of workers were forced to change the way they live and work — and to learn how to live amid ongoing uncertainty.

“To force them into a big change again, afterwards, whether it’s a positive or negative change objectively … maybe it’s too much, too soon,” he said. “When there isn’t sufficient time to process, when the changes keep on coming and coming, that’s where burnout becomes much more prevalent.”

There are plenty of reasons to tread lightly. Most remote and hybrid work arrangements aren’t treated as a benefit per se, and yet that is what they have become for many.

How many parents are in your workforce? For many working parents, remote work (eventually) became the silver lining of the pandemic.

For the first time, many working moms and dads can pick up a sick child from school without having to take a half-day of PTO, or pick up a needed prescription between meetings instead of doing it while wolfing down a sandwich in the car on lunch break … while still getting the job done.

Employers eager to get back to the way things were must be mindful that employees may be less eager, if “back to the way things were” means back to a lifestyle that’s unsustainable.

By the way, 40% of remote workers say they’ve been more productive since going remote, according to Zippia. That’s something else to consider about getting back to the way things were.

DiMassimo said it’s notable how many leaders are asking for RTO solutions but can’t articulate the problem they’re trying to solve. If someone moves your cheese, he said, “It’s very easy to just react and say, ‘Put it back, put it back where I can see it.’

“But I would say to that, take a step back, identify and see what the true issue is, and also where the opportunities lie,” he said.

Consider this is as well: We can go back to the way we used to work.

Or we can rebuild the work world with employees’ health and wellbeing in mind. I know which one I’d choose. &