As more and more companies require employees to return to the office, they run into the buzzsaw of what I think of as the “Four Horsemen of the Required Return to Office”— specifically, challenges with resistance, attrition, quiet quitting, and diversity.
The Four Horsemen stem from the fact that workers who are capable of working remotely prefer to do so for most or all of the time. Thus, workers facing inflexible return-to-office mandates show resistance, the first of the Four Horsemen. For example, when GM announced that all salaried employees would have to return to the office three days a week, it sparked intense employee backlash. This led to GM walking back its requirements and delaying any required return to office.
In a survey, Gartner found that only 3% of companies would fire noncompliant employees, and only 30% would have HR talk to those who don’t show up. Large US banks trying to force employees back to the office are meeting with high rates of up to 50% noncompliance. And many other employees are showing up for a part of the workday, from 10am to 2pm.
Given this resistance, some workers simply quit, joining the Great Resignation—making attrition the second of the Four Horsemen. That includes top-level executives: Ian Goodfellow, who led machine learning at Apple, quit in protest over Apple’s mandated three-days-a-week return to office. European banks, which offer more flexible hybrid work policies, are using their flexible policies to lure talented staff from less flexible US banks. Smaller and more flexible financial planning firms are headhunting financial planners in larger and less flexible companies.
Perhaps even more dangerous than resistance and attrition is the third of the Four Horsemen, quiet quitting. Quiet quitting can be worse than the much more obvious resistance or attrition, since quiet quitting rots a company’s culture from within. Gallup research finds that “the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time—or three to four days in a five-day workweek—working off-site.” Forcing employees to come to the office under the threat of discipline leads to disengagement, fear and distrust, according to Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup.
Loss of Diversity
The final of the Four Horsemen relates to the serious loss of diversity associated with the mandated office return. A Future Forum survey found that 21% of all White knowledge workers wanted a return to full-time in-office work, but only 3% of all Black knowledge workers wanted the same. Why? Because Black professionals still suffer from discrimination and microaggressions in the office. Companies that are less flexible have DEI staff ringing alarm bells about how the desire for remote work among underrepresented groups threatens diversity goals.
How to Slay Them
In working with my clients who wish to bring their employees back to the office to slay the Four Horsemen, I find a combination of strategies to be crucial. Before launching an office return, we consider compensation policies. A June 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resources reports that to get employees to stay at a hybrid job with a 30-minute commute, they would need a pay raise of 10%. Research by Owl Labs suggests that it costs an average of US$863/month for the average office worker to commute to work versus working from home, which costs about half that, US$432/month, for utilities, office supplies and so on. That data helped my clients develop a fair compensation plan that paid staff a higher salary if they spent more time in the office. Doing so helped address the first two Horsemen, resistance and attrition.
Addressing quiet quitting requires working to improve culture and feelings of belonging, such as through retreats with fun team-building exercises. Another idea centered on helping staff address burnout, such as by providing mental health benefits. To help prevent diversity losses, as well as facilitate underrepresented groups moving forward on their career paths, it’s valuable to create a formal mentoring program with a special focus on underrepresented staff.
So if you and your leadership team are committed to returning to a mostly or fully in-person workforce, remember that you need to watch out for—and defeat—the Four Horsemen. Make a plan in advance, and determine how you will overcome these problems before they threaten the success of your return-to-office plan.
Contributed to EO by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, who helps EO members seize competitive advantage in hybrid work by driving employee retention, collaboration, and innovation through behavioral science as the CEO of the future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and authored the best-seller Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.