A New Return-to-Office Trade-off

High-performing workers are twice as likely to leave firms with more restrictive return-to-office policies, a new study shows. But leaders can still point to RTO benefits.

What’s more valuable to leaders—keeping as much top talent as possible, or having everyone work close together? Increasingly, bosses might be faced with that choice.

In yet another new wrinkle to return-to-office mandates, a new study indicates that high-performing employees are twice as likely as average employees to consider leaving an employer that imposes a strict RTO policy. Women and millennial-aged employees were also more likely to consider leaving, albeit to a lesser degree.

“No one wants to lose high performers, but you might not get what you think you’ll get by mandating this,” says Dennis Deans, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global human resources.

The new study asked more than 2,100 knowledge workers to quantify the impact a stricter RTO policy had on their desire to remain at their organization. On average, an employee’s intention to remain with their employer fell 8% when the new policy took effect. For high performers—defined as those who had progressed faster in their career compared to peers—the number was doubled. Intent to stay also fell for millennial-aged (11%) and female (10%) employees.

The study demonstrates the difficult calculus leaders must navigate in workplace scheduling, an area which wasn’t particularly controversial until the pandemic. But COVID-19 forced tens of millions of people to go remote for months. Many employees who enjoyed the flexibility and lack of a commute are still leery of going back to the old way of work. 

RTO policies remain a dilemma for many organizations partly because there’s so much conflicting data about their effectiveness. At least one major study says that full-time remote work is 10% to 20% less productive than full-time in-person work. Other data shows that onboarding and team collaborating is far more effective when carried out in person. Further, many leaders remain convinced that in-office work is a leading driver for building and maintaining a cohesive corporate culture.

But for every pro-RTO data point, there’s one that suggests in-person work doesn’t in fact improve a firm’s bottom line. Research shows organizations could lose out on diverse and top talent by forcing everyone back to the office full time. Experts observe that a return to full-time in-office work will erode gains companies made by expanding their talent pools to include candidates living far away from the office. “You wind up eroding the company’s value proposition to employees and potential employees,” says Alma Derricks, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in its Culture, Change, and Communications practice.

To be sure, high performers and others could be more apt to leave for a variety of reasons. They might see better opportunities elsewhere, in-office or remote, where their prior accomplishments make them more valuable. A 50% pay raise from one employer might beat out a flexible-work offer from another. “If someone is leaving for their own reasons, you can’t really do much about it,” Deans says.

Experts say high performers might interpret an aggressive RTO mandate as a lack of trust in their ability to get their work done remotely. Even if many employees grouse about returning to the office, experts say they’ll do so if they feel it benefits them. In one study, 85% of employees said they’d be motivated to return to the office to rebuild team bonds. Other popular incentives include in-person training, better feedback, and career-development opportunities.

The only way to know how important flexibility is to a particular workforce is to ask. By finding out what specific employees really value, experts say, leaders may be able devise a better system, one in which both workers and organizations have what they consider essential.


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