Offering Rewards... to Go Back to the Office

Fully 90% of CEOs in one survey now say they’ll give promotions and higher pay to get people back in the office. Why the shift in tactics?

Over the summer, more and more CEOs told their employees, “Return to the office—or else,” threatening the career prospects of those who insisted on working remotely.

But as office occupancy continues to stagnate, a number of bosses now seem willing to say, “Return to the office—and you’ll get rewarded.”

In a new survey of 400 US CEOs, fully 90% said they’re willing to reward office-based employees with favorable assignments, raises, or promotions. Experts say that CEOs seem to have realized that threatening employees might not work as well as tempting them. “It looks like the CEOs are blinking first,” says Anu Gupta, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who works with a variety of life-sciences and healthcare firms.

Whether it’s the stick or the carrot causing it, CEOs do feel confidence that the tide will turn. Sixty-two percent say that corporate jobs that were office based pre-pandemic will be office based once again three years from now. For more than a year, office occupancy in the US has stubbornly remained at about 50%.

In a sense, offering employees rewards to return to the office was one of the first tactics employers used to get workers back. Most of those perks were relatively modest: free lunches, baseball tickets, even some small cash bonuses.

As time went on, however, there was a growing sense among leaders that firms’ productivity, with so many people working remotely, was slipping. Indeed, there’s evidence that an all-remote workforce is 10% to 20% less productive than a full-time in-office staff. Other research has shown that a handful of corporate functions, such as onboarding staff or launching projects, are far more effective when everyone is in the same location. 

Unhappy with office attendance, some major firms threatened employees who weren’t adhering to return-to-office policies. One big firm’s boss told workers that they wouldn’t have much of a future at the firm if they continued working remotely. And a large tech firm said that people who weren’t in the office three days a week were at risk of getting fired.

The aggressive rhetoric—combined with a tightening job market—has swayed many employees to come back, at least for one to three days a week. But Gupta says most organizations haven’t been able to explain convincingly to their white-collar employees why working primarily from the office is far more productive than working primarily from home.

At the same time, many employees enjoy the elimination of their daily commutes. Plus, the childcare and eldercare issues that became acute during the pandemic haven’t gone away—and many firms have not offered new solutions. “We’re not back to normal in terms of the complexity of life,” Gupta says.

The job market’s resiliency could also make leaders worry that their threats might backfire—that remote workers will simply quit. According to a Conference Board survey in July, 40% of leaders expect to increase the size of their workforce over the next 12 months; another 40% say the numbers will hold steady. An exodus of remote workers would work against those projections.

Pay raises and promotions likely will be costlier to companies than the free lunches and other carrots leaders previously used to tempt remote-working employees back to the office. Still, moving away from threats could help, experts say. More organizations might benefit from a philosophy of “want to come in” rather than “have to come in,” says David Ellis, vice president of Korn Ferry’s Global Talent Acquisition Transformation business. “It sets a better tone for the relationship between the talent and the employer,” he says.


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