Return-to-Office Mandates Risk Disengaged Employees, Says HR Firm McLean & Company

The new data-backed Return-to-Office Playbook from the global HR research and advisory firm explains that while organizations can use forced mandates to ensure employees are physically present in the office, they will not be able to force employees to be mentally engaged at work.

As an increasing number of organizations are enacting return-to-office (RTO) policies to bring employees back to the physical office, the risk of dissatisfied and disengaged employees accustomed to remote and hybrid work models is also rising. With the news of a growing number of organizations working to implement such policies, HR research and advisory firm McLean & Company has released its new resource, Return-to-Office Playbook. The firm, a trusted resource for HR leaders, advises that organizations need an intentional, well-thought-out approach to ensure that RTO mandates are sustainable and meet both employee and organizational needs.

McLean & Company’s RTO playbook highlights that a mandated one-size-fits-all approach is associated with numerous risks, including exclusion, increased turnover and disengagement, reduced productivity, employee backlash, and declining trust in the organization. The firm’s research indicates that these risks come with associated costs related to addressing reduced ability to recruit and retain talent, increased turnover, and lost engagement and productivity.

“Organizations must understand the unique challenges of their workforce when employing RTO policies,” says LynnAnn Brewer, executive advisor at McLean & Company. “Many employees made drastic changes to their lives during the pandemic, such as relocating, and are now required to make significant changes again, which can result in increased stress and anxiety. Leaders must practice empathy and flexibility throughout the return process to mitigate the risks of losing talent or damaging employee engagement and employer reputation.”

The new resource further underscores the important role timing plays in the initial stages of RTO implementation. External factors like weather, holidays, and other geographic considerations, as well as personal factors such as family or caretaker responsibilities, will impact employees’ experience coming into the office. To address implementation concerns, the firm suggests employing a diverse strategic planning team with different backgrounds and experience levels to provide diverse perspectives and help mitigate bias.

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To support organizational and HR leaders in their efforts to create and implement an RTO policy that meets the needs of both employees and the organization, McLean & Company has identified a three-step plan. Explored in-depth in the playbook, the steps are outlined below at a high level:

  1. Assess organizational and employee needs. The first step asks leaders to review key players’ responsibilities in the RTO process, examine strategic documents to determine how RTO supports the organization’s strategic direction, and gather existing data to identify insights about RTO. This step also requires conducting focus groups with leaders to identify the rationale for RTO, launching a survey to gather the employee perspective, and categorizing the insights gathered to identify reasons for RTO, related misconceptions, and more.
  2. Create the RTO policy. The next step is creating a planning committee, assessing the logistics of the office space, and identifying supports and incentives that are feasible to offer employees returning to the office. Step two also includes identifying employee exemptions to include in the RTO policy, formulating the guiding principles for the policy, and drafting and presenting the policy to executives for approval.
  3. Roll out the RTO policy. The third and final step guides leaders through creating rollout and communication plans, sharing the RTO policy with people leaders and employees, and equipping people leaders with tools to help them implement the policy within their teams. Upon completion of step three, leaders will also have aligned the RTO policy with existing HR programs and devised an approach for evaluating the policy.

The playbook advises that there will always be a small portion of the workforce that is dissatisfied with the RTO policy. As such, McLean & company recommends organizations must do everything they can to ensure the policy implemented is flexible and supported by a strong rationale to avoid deteriorating organizational wellbeing. The firm also counsels organizational and HR leaders that while monitoring and making necessary adjustments to the policy is crucial, an organization that keeps resetting the RTO policy is likely to frustrate its employees. To avoid further dissatisfying employees, any changes to the RTO policy should directly address issues identified through and backed by data.

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