Back-to-Office Mandates: Followed or Ignored?

As organizations up their requirements for in-office days, many are discovering that such mandates can be hard to enforce.

The manager was flummoxed. He had four top-performing employees who continued to ignore management’s three-days-a-week in-office rule. Instead, the employees typically appeared twice a week—except during family trips, when they appeared on Zoom screens framed by beaches or amusement parks. He was in a tight spot: he didn’t want to discipline his top performers, but he also couldn’t continue to enforce the rule inequitably.

This conundrum is brewing in C-suites across the country. Organizations are calling workers back to the office this September and facing steep resistance, much of it in the form of employees creatively dodging in-office days. The latest monthly Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes finds that employers are now mandating an average of 2.8 days in-office per week, while employees say they want to come in just 1.6 days per week. This gap, experts say, has created an enforcement issue at a level most managers rarely see. “Employees are skirting required in-office days in all sorts of ways," says Elise Freedman, leader of Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation practice. “It’s a tug of war.”

To be sure, some employees are following in-office mandates to the letter—realizing that US employers can, for the most part, legally compel employees to work in their buildings. Though the survey shows that work-from-home days are declining—down from 37% of all days in January 2021 to 31% in July 2022—experts say that employees’ actual compliance with the rules has a lot to do with their other work opportunities. “If the four major companies you can work for say to come back, you’re going to come back,” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry.

In-office policies and mandates vary widely by industry. According to the survey, which canvassed more than 2,500 workers, information and technology workers lead all industries in remote work, logging an average of 2.68 days per week at home. Finance and insurance professionals log 2.23 days at home, and professional and business services workers log 2.02 days. That’s 30% to 70% more than employees in nine other fields, including government, utilities, healthcare, manufacturing and retail trade—the last of whose workers average just .68 days at home per week.

Those averages are substantially below companies’ mandates, which increased sharply this month as the summer ended. But with enforcement either weak or unclear, HR officials say workers can employ some amusingly sly strategies to limit in-office days, including limiting days at the office to 10 am to 2 pm (few companies formally define the length of an in-office day), and scheduling conferences and off-site meetings for in-office days. Others call in sick or schedule vacation days during in-office time. Most brazenly, some simply work from home. “Companies are trying to change the laws of physics as they pertain to dealing with workers,” says David Vied, global sector leader for the Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice at Korn Ferry. He notes that both the Great Resignation and workers ignoring mandates are bottom-up movements, while enforcing an RTO mandate is a top-down edict that flows against the tide.

Experts say that organizations must decide whether these new mandates will—or can be—enforced. Tracking employee whereabouts is feasible for managers with easy access to dashboards that register employee-computer login locations. “But if HR departments are too strict on this, I think employees will seek out other options,” says Liz Schafer, practice leader for the professional search division at Korn Ferry. “Both leaders and CHROs are bumping up against this.” She suggests soft tactics, like making office days notably different and more pleasant than days at home in front of a screen, with meaningful group experiences and collaboration.

Before advancing a mandate, Freedman suggests that organizations also advance the “why,” so that employees understand why coming in is advantageous to them and their teams. “Employees are very good at avoiding rules they don’t feel are beneficial or worthwhile,” she says. “If organizations do not market the ‘why,’ it will continue to be a tug of war with an uncertain outcome.”