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RTO Mandates Need to be Built on Trust

For most of my career, I never really thought about my relationship with work. I thought about my relationship with my colleagues. I thought about the viability of my company, but work was just work that happened to have good and bad elements. This is why I find HP’s Work Relationship Index so interesting – it found that only about one-quarter (27%) of knowledge workers have a healthy relationship with work. That’s not good. (Check here for details on the study’s methodology – e.g., more than 15,624 employees working in 12 countries – and how it covered over 50 aspects of work.)

Since the results were published, I believe I’ve gone through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). My usual beat is how new tech is making our jobs better, but perhaps there’s a bigger story behind HP’s study. And I think that’s why it sticks with me. It allows me to revisit a familiar topic – the return-to-office (RTO) and work-from-home (WFH) tensions – through the Index’s lens.


Revisiting RTO/WFH Tensions with That Lens

For example, employers want their employees back in the office, and employees don’t want to go. Initially, I dismissed this as a “resistance to change” issue associated with defining a new normal.

Change is difficult, and admittedly there are some real challenges associated with remote work. On the other hand, there are also some compelling benefits. I kept thinking we would find the magical compromise, and while that’s partially occurring, there’s a powerful, inexplicable undercurrent pulling employees back into the office.

That undercurrent is the status quo. The insurmountable, rigid “normal” of the past.

I think it’s fair to say the future of work will be far more distributed than it was in the past, but systems, people, and processes take time to evolve. Changes are necessary in expectations, skills, and even laws. Here are four forces pulling employees back to an office.


Force #1: Supervision

The modern office was developed during the Industrial Age. Employees came to work and their output was visible and quantifiable – for example, a manager can see and quantify a bricklayer’s productivity. However, these easily visible and quantifiable metrics are difficult to apply to office workers who engage in what we generally refer to as knowledge or creative work.

Visible supervision essentially became a proxy for supervising and measuring knowledge workers, but it is not particularly effective. When employees went remote, we lost visibility. Looking busy sounds silly as a strategy, but it’s reasonable if that’s the measure.

The pandemic exposed visibility’s ineffectiveness as a tool for supervision. In some cases, other measures were identified, but it’s a sticky problem to solve for different roles and situations. Remote supervision is not something most managers can just do, nor are employees versed in how to communicate their progress in knowledge or creative endeavors.

RTO is often about ignoring the elephant in the home office. Let’s just go back to the illusion that worked so well. With everyone back in the office, we can pretend to supervise them like before. This might work for a bit, but it’s part of the broken relationship with work because everyone knows that visible supervision isn’t effective for knowledge work. Building relationships on an open lie isn’t healthy. It doesn’t matter if it’s one day a week or full time in the office, supervision as a motivation is weak at best.

Employers, managers, and employees need to develop and agree on new tools and metrics in lieu of visible supervision. This is true regardless of who works where. RTO mandates that result in this conversation are indeed healthy, but too often RTO is about control and lack of it. 


Force #2: Cultural Development

Every company has a company culture. This is what defines desirable and unacceptable behaviors. A strong culture attracts employees that fit it and expels those who don’t. Company culture doesn’t just happen. Business leaders work hard to cultivate it. Many companies, even tech companies such as Google and Yahoo!, have mitigated and eliminated remote work in the past in order to focus on company culture.

Culture and cultural changes propagate more efficiently when everyone is in the same location. UCaaS tools are very effective at meetings but not particularly good at less formal interactions — and that’s where culture spreads. Working remotely requires behavioral changes from employees, and these take time to develop and learn. For example, no one can read a facial expression when the camera is off. Those of us over 40 didn’t learn Advanced Emoji in college. 


Force #3: Taxes/benefits

Another important area to consider is income taxes and employee benefits. No one likes to talk about taxes, but we all have to pay them. Our tax system is heavily influenced by where people live, work, and shop. Prior to the pandemic, the assumption was that remote employees were mostly local. When offices closed, proximity to the office became irrelevant, and many employees moved into different cities, states, and countries. This has created a taxation headache and liability that HR and Finance want to resolve. The quick and easy answer is to limit or eliminate remote employees.

There are also challenges with employee benefits as smaller companies may obtain benefits from local providers. Not all benefits are available to employees out of the region which can create inequities and jealousies.


Force #4: Macro-/Micro-economics

The fourth issue is external to the employer but still a factor. Employees like working from home because it eliminates the time and expense of commuting. We tend to focus on the time, but let’s look at the expense. Our cities and towns were built on commuters. Office buildings, mass transit systems, and the network of businesses such as restaurants, dry cleaners, retail stores, gas stations, and more depend on commuters. City leaders are creating incentives to get employees back in the office and into these shops.

One might argue that working from home is a selfish act. Sure it has personal benefits, but it devalues commercial real estate and puts pressure on other businesses in our communities. On the other hand, it may also reduce energy consumption, traffic congestion, carbon release, air and noise pollution, and offers many other non-selfish benefits. See my related post.

(Editor’s Note: Here’s one study from September 2023 that discusses the climate impact of remote work.)


Focus On Rebuilding Trust 

These are complex issues. We didn’t have that luxury to address these during the pandemic, but we do now. Organizations and individuals need to evaluate if and how to use office space. It’s a healthy conversation that will likely result with new metrics and expectations. However, the RTO-WFH debates seem much narrower, more personal in scope.

Remote work is not a new concept. Many individuals and roles have been remote for a very long time. What’s new or controversial is the post-pandemic expectation that all or most “office worker” jobs can be performed remotely. This pressure to return is about more than where we work. It’s more about our relationship with work.

HP identified as the issue is more about the general work relationship, and not about specific roles or metrics. Employers telling employees they must return to the office for supervision could be interpreted as a lie, causing distrust and a broken relationship with work. The bigger win is rebuilding trust between employer and employee. With improved trust comes improved morale and productivity, and a stronger improved relationship with workplace.

HP found that 39% of knowledge workers expressed disengagement from their work, and 38% felt a sense of disconnection from their organization. A striking 71% of knowledge workers who fall into the category of being neither happy nor unhappy in their work relationships are considering leaving their company. This number spikes to 91% for those who are entirely dissatisfied with their work situations. Unhealthy relationships with work can significantly contribute to a mental, emotional, and physical health crisis among employees.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.