Return to the Office Because...

Are leaders asking people to come back for the wrong reasons? New research highlights when in-person is best.

A typical hybrid employee might appear in the office to be onboarded or for a standing weekly meeting. Plus, say, a coworker party, a monthly food-truck lunch, and an all-hands company meeting.

Is this the best use of their time? 

The battle over when to come into the office continues to rage, with both company leaders and employees disagreeing about when in-person work is beneficial. And while there may never be an answer, new internal data from Microsoft offers some rare clues about the kind of work that is consistently  beneficial in the office. The data comes down to three activities: onboarding (individuals or teams), kicking off a project, and strengthening team cohesion.

According to Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry, such studies could be a valuable tool in the RTO office movement. “The mindset should be that you have to earn employees’ commutes” he says.

According to the study, in-person project kickoffs generate 14% more ideas and are measurably more creative (18%). And people who onboard in person score better on a raft of metrics 90 days later, including being roughly 10% more likely to ask teammates for input and feedback, and 7% more likely to discuss problems with their manager and say that their manager provides performance-improving feedback. As for in-person team bonding, a whopping 85% of employees said they’d be motivated to return to the office to rebuild team bonds.

But many companies continue to push return-to-office policies with top-down requirements, instead of data. “It’s a mistake to have people come in because a leader said so,” says Juan Pablo González, sector leader for professional services at Korn Ferry. The risk of this approach, he says, is that employees may feel that their in-office trips are not justified or that the price of commuting—getting dressed, traveling, buying lunch—is simply not worthwhile.

Instead, the Microsoft study frames beneficial in-office activities around building trust, which it calls “moments that matter.” This new data suggests that managers need to adopt “new outlooks and strategies for in-office time and managing productivity,” says Maria Amato, senior client partner in the Organizational Strategy practice at Korn Ferry, who cautions that some roles and employees will always be better suited to the office, whether because of the roles themselves or employees’ needs and home environments. She says that a manager’s first step is analyzing individual roles and responsibilities, and proceeding on a case-by-case basis.

The messaging around in-office events is critical, and experts urge transparency, whether the reasoning behind it is trust-building or something else. For example, if a company operates a large real-estate footprint with ample collaboration and social space, along with nearby eateries and businesses, it’s logical to simply say that employees are part of a larger city environment. That messaging is much more effective than, say, imposing blanket three-day-a-week mandates without explanation. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for companies to say that they created an environment really receptive to collaboration and well-being, and that it’s part of a larger ecosystem,” says Sharon Egilinsky, senior client partner in the Organizational Strategy and ESG practices at Korn Ferry.

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