Another Spin on the RTO Wheel

One-quarter of US employees say their firms’ return-to-office rules have changed multiple times. Is the waffling causing some workers to stay home?


Return-to-office policies don’t change as often as the weather, but at some organizations, employees say it’s starting to feel that way.

According to a new survey, 21% of employees say their employer has changed its return-to-office policy at least once; more interestingly, 6% said the bosses have changed the policy six times or more. As the survey notes, that figure doesn’t include the initial change many employees experienced at the start of COVID, which suggests that some companies remain uncertain both about what policies to create—and how to enforce them. “The constant changes can cause erosion of trust and culture, and a sense that people are being muscled,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources practice.

To be sure, many companies continue to get tough—and firm—on their policies. Instead of asking workers to come in a few days a week, multiple high-profile organizations are mandating full-time in-office work. Many other organizations telegraphed their desires to get people back to the office late last year. In separate surveys taken near the end of 2023, 90% of firms said they would require at least some in-office work this year, while 80% said they would track attendance.

Office-occupancy statistics are now bearing out those intentions. Average office occupancy is 51%, a figure it has hovered around since early 2023, according to Kastle Systems, which monitors keycard swipes at offices in major cities around the country. However, occupancy is far higher on Tuesdays, the one weekday many organizations require their employees to come into the office. Occupancy on Tuesday is 61% nationwide, and in some cities 70% or higher.

The debate over all of this is well-known. Many bosses believe that in-office workers are more productive, and for some functions, data bears that out. Many organizations also believe that they can only establish and maintain a strong culture if everyone is—at least some of the time—occupying the same workplace. For their part, many employees continue to see the situation differently.  Most are not averse to working some of the time at the office, but many are wary of the continuously changing policies. A whopping 77% think employers’ objective is greater oversight and control over how people spend their workday, according to an April survey from job-market website MyPerfectResume.

The latest round of RTO-policy changes also might indicate that corporate leaders have more leverage in the job market. While unemployment remains near record lows, the number of new job openings has declined significantly, particularly for white-collar roles that are more suited to at-home work. Employees who once bragged that they’d quit if required to return to the office are less certain now that they can find an equivalent opportunity with flexible scheduling. “There’s not a lot of mobility unless you’re super specialized,” says Deepali Vyas, global head of Korn Ferry’s FinTech, Payments and Crypto practice.

For his part, Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits and mobility operations, says that modifying their policies is how some companies are attempting to respond to a constantly evolving work environment, one that is populated by five generations of workers, each with different priorities. “No one has written the book on this just yet,” he says.

But experts say that these shifting messages on RTO make many employees feel that the firm is bluffing, or that its leadership is inconsistent. “That is always the risk of pivoting,” Bloom says. Instead of changing rules, experts advise that any return-to-office policy change be firm—and honest. In one instance, the boss of an investment firm acknowledged to his employees that commuting wasn’t ideal, but that they had to return to the office because the company owned billions in commercial real-estate assets. A firm that owns office buildings but has a fully remote workforce would be a terrible look. “There was candor,” Kaplan says.


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Workforce Management capabilities.