Return to Office: How You're Failing Your People & How to Make It Right

In 2023, the corporate world stands at a crossroads, with a Return-to-Office (RTO) mandate looming large. As a millennial, I'm not just a spectator in this drama; I'm an active participant (even though I didn’t ASK FOR THIS???) with a vested interest in its outcome. 

The RTO push isn't just a logistical decision, so spare us your claims that your company overspent on real estate and you need warm bodies in seats to make the investment worth your money. (Although so few are actually owning up to this...)

You need to realize forcing people back to the office is a cultural statement, a declaration of priorities that many of us find increasingly out-of-touch. 

But this isn’t just a piece where I trash RTO for the sake of doing so. The data speaks volumes. Plus, I know so many HR people have their hands tied and have to orchestrate this whether they agree with it or not, so I’ve got some advice for you, too.

And, before we dive in I want to be clear: working in an office with coworkers is super beneficial for some people! But not all. We live in the era of flexibility. So let's lean in.

The Great Disconnect: Reality vs. corporate fantasy

There's a glaring disconnect between what companies envision and the reality employees live in. 

A recent study by NORC at the University of Chicago paints a telling picture: less than half of the workforce is happy about returning to the office. Yet, 90% of HR policies are stubbornly focused on perceived benefits like productivity and company culture. 

This dissonance isn't just inconvenient; it's a brewing storm threatening to uproot the very foundations of workplace satisfaction. Beyond mere discontent, this disconnect reflects a deeper issue in the corporate mindset. 

Employers stuck in pre-pandemic thought patterns fail to recognize the seismic changes in employee attitudes toward work-life balance, flexibility, and autonomy. This oversight is not just a minor misstep; it's a strategic blunder that risks widening the gap between management and staff. 

By ignoring the clear preferences for remote or hybrid models, companies are not just battling attrition (and you can’t blame people for quitting and going somewhere that meets their needs) but also inadvertently stifling innovation and employee engagement. 

The NORC study also illuminates a critical need for a paradigm shift in how work is structured and valued. Companies clinging to traditional office-centric models are not just out of sync with current workforce trends; they are actively undermining their own efforts to build a resilient, satisfied, and productive workforce.

Mandated returns are short-sighted.

As I love to do, let's slice through the corporate BS and professional jargon and get real: These mandated office comebacks are a colossal blunder. 

It's like companies have amnesia, totally forgetting the diverse needs of their people. We're not just cogs in a machine; we're living, breathing humans with unique situations. Pandemic life schooled us in the art of flexible work, but it seems like the bigwigs were playing hooky during those lessons. Now, they're just steamrolling us back to the pre-pandemic world, utterly oblivious to the fact that they're not just ruffling feathers - they're plucking them clean off. 

It's not just about cramping our style; it’s a straight-up denial of the new work life we’ve all gotten used to. So, wake up, corporate world! You’re not just making a tiny oopsie; you're misreading the entire room. 

In a world where work-life balance has become the holy grail, this move feels like a slap in the face. We've tasted the sweet freedom of managing our own time and proving our worth beyond the confines of an office cubicle. In fact, for so many companies, productivity skyrocketed with remote work.

MOST IMPORTANTLY… this whole RTO push isn't just a hassle, it's flat-out ableist. 

Look at these stats: While everyone else's unemployment rates are chilling, disabled folks are seeing their numbers jump from 5% to a whopping 6.7%. What happened to the progress we made? 

Well, with less remote work and the same old ableist attitudes, we're backsliding, big time. In an interview with DEI and Workplace Reporter Kristen Parisi for HR Brew, Emily Ladau hit the nail on the head. This article highlighted the following:

Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, told HR Brew that some employers say they’re inclusive, but don’t show how they’re inclusive throughout the year. To shed light on this discrepancy, she sported a T-shirt that read “Not your diversity statistic” during NDEAM.
“It feels to me very inauthentic and it feels like it is simply focusing on meeting a particular moment,” she said. “But the rest of the year, [they do] not do very much to put any action behind that.”

Companies are all talk, no action when it comes to supporting disabled workers. We can't just shrug this off. These aren't just numbers; they're real people getting shafted by a system that's supposed to be evolving.

So, overall, RTO isn't just a step back; it's a full-on retreat into the dark ages of workplace culture. What’s next, another bubonic plague??

It's time to get with the program and recognize that flexibility isn't just a perk; it's the new standard. And speaking of perks…

Your very own cubicle is not a perk. Spare us the half-dead desk plant.

Look, the data's not just whispering; it's practically shouting from the rooftops. Employees aren't just half-heartedly resisting this return-to-office nonsense; they're seriously questioning whether it even makes sense. 

Dig into that NORC study, and you'll find something pretty eye-opening: a whole bunch of folks who've been rocking the remote work life see zero point in schlepping back to an office. This isn't some rebellious streak; it's a completely logical reaction to a demand that feels like it's from another era.

These workers want more than a desk and a swivel chair; they're after recognition of their autonomy. They've proven they can kill it from their kitchen tables or home offices. They've juggled Zoom calls and deadlines and a mid-day load of laundry while still managing not to lose their sanity or miss metrics. And now, some suit-and-tie exec wants to drag them back to a cubicle because... why? Tradition? Aesthetics?

It's not about being defiant. It's about being smart, efficient, and - let's be honest - a bit protective of this new, more balanced lifestyle we've all gotten a taste of. The NORC data is a wake-up call. It's telling companies loud and clear: Wake up and smell the coffee (which, by the way, is much better at home). 

It's time for a serious re-think of what productivity looks like in the 21st century. We're talking about a workforce that's looking for more than just a place to plug in their laptops. They're looking for respect, trust, and the freedom to make adult decisions about where and how they work best.

Now that I've got that off my chest, here's what you came for...

Advice for HR: Rewriting the rules for the new workplace era

Alright, HR folks and company leaders, listen up. The old rulebook? Toss it. Light it on fire. Send it off into the ocean on a pyre like a Viking funeral. Whatever it takes, because we're in a whole new game now, and it's time for some serious strategy tweaks. Here's the lowdown on what you need to do:

1. Embrace Flexibility Like It's Going Out of Style: We're talking about hybrid models that don't just pay lip service to the word 'flexible.' But here's the kicker – don't just throw around 'flexible' like it's a buzzword. People will see right through that nonsense. 

Customize these models like they're tailor-made suits. Every employee is different; some might be all about that office buzz a few days a week, while others do their best work when they're cozied up at home. Cater to the Gucci taste and those who are perfectly content shopping at Men’s Warehouse. 

Flexibility means really tuning into these differences. It's about offering choices that reflect your team's varied lifestyles and work preferences. It could be time-based (choosing their work hours), location-based (home, office, or the local coffee shop), or project-based flexibility. 

The goal? Create a work environment that's as unique as each team member, one where everyone can find their groove and do their thing their way.

2. The New Non-Negotiable, Open Communication: This isn't about sending a survey and calling it a day. And stop wondering why no one wants to fill out surveys. Do you really want to be asked for your opinion only to be shot down or ignored? No. So, have real, honest-to-goodness conversations.

Sit down, grab a coffee (or other beverage), and listen to what your team has to say. 

Why do they prefer working from home? 

What's their ideal office scenario? 

This back-and-forth can't be a one-off; it's got to be a regular thing. And when decisions are made, don't just broadcast them from your ivory tower. Walk your people through the 'why' behind every call you make. Open up the floor for feedback, and brace yourself - it might not all be sunshine and rainbows, but it's gold in terms of building trust and understanding. Remember, communication is a two-way street, and it's high time we start treating it that way.

3. Offer Meaningful Incentives: Show them the money!!!! Or something equally cool, like better lifestyle benefits. We gotta up the ante. 

If you're asking people to commute, make it genuinely appealing. We're way past the era of free coffee and generic perks. Lunch in the office is cool, but so is stuffing your face in the privacy of your own home, where no one will blacklist you for cooking fish in the microwave. 

For return to office incentives to work, you need to address the stuff that actually matters – like helping with those pesky commuting costs or creating an office space that's more a chic café than a dreary cubicle farm. And hey, why not throw in some financial sweeteners? Maybe spot bonuses for in-office days or subsidies for travel and meals

The bottom line? Recognize the real effort and cost of coming to the office and make it worth their while. This isn't just about filling seats; it's about showing your team that their time and effort are valued, big time.

Oh, and these aren't just tips; they're like new commandments. It's time to lead with empathy, flexibility, and a hefty dose of reality. Welcome to the future of work – it's a wild ride, but with the right approach, you'll make it a great one for your team.

Down with cubicles, up with flexibility.

If I wanna roll out of bed, skip showering, pound 3 cups of cold brew, and crank out this very article, that is my prerogative. And I want a workplace that supports that. But if someone else enjoys washing their hair, listening to a favorite podcast during a commute, and logging in at their desk next just a few cubicles down from the lunch room, they should feel empowered to do so!

We are at a pivotal moment in our approach to work.

This isn't just about a transition to open-concept workplaces with ping-pong tables and other crap nobody wants but is, for some reason, there; it's a deeper, more significant shift. Today's workforce is clamoring for flexibility, for a work culture that recognizes and adapts to the myriad realities of our lives. There are five generations of workforce to support. What Gen Z wants is not what Gen X wants – and that’s perfectly okay!!!

Companies that embrace this shift aren't just surviving; they're setting themselves up to attract and retain the best talent. They understand that work is a part of life, not the other way around. It's time to move beyond the outdated 9-to-5 grind and evolve into an era where work is integrated seamlessly into our lives without overstepping, offering both productivity and personal satisfaction.

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