Returning to Office—But Feeling Unmotivated

New data shows a growing number of “actively disengaged” employees at the office. How firms can respond.

The hope was there—at least among corporate leaders. Workers returning to the office would be eager to see colleagues and build business in person.

That eagerness is fading, especially among workers who feel they can perform their duties at home. According to a new poll, the most disengaged employees are those with jobs that can be carried out remotely. In that group, 7% became “actively disengaged” last year. “They’re not hearing a corporate message about why they need to be in the office that makes sense to them,” says workforce transformation expert Maria Amato, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

A growing number of leaders are still pushing to bring workers back to the office. For the first time since the pandemic began, more than 50% of employees in major cities are now working in person, according to building-security company Kastle Systems. But productivity remains an issue that worries leaders, especially in a tough economy.

According to most experts, few employees complained when firms turned to hybrid policies in 2021. Workers were empathetic to their managers, who were grappling with a difficult situation. For a while, in-office days were novel for many workers— chances to see old friends. These hybrid workers expected to enjoy the upsides of office culture, says Amato. Then reality hit. “They found themselves working behind closed doors and doing back-to-back meetings on Zoom,” says Amato. Employees with childcare or eldercare responsibilities, as well as people living alone, were tangibly inconvenienced, she says, and grumbled to one another.

Managers were expecting some of this blowback. But in the last two months, they say, complaints about unnecessary commutes and in-office days have risen in volume, especially among workers who don’t see a justification for being in the office (and in some cases, toiling alone).  “When people are asked to do things that don’t have much purpose, they lose trust in the organization,” Amato says.

This situation is far from benign in terms of functional teamwork. “There are a number of risks here,” says Grant Duncan, managing director and sector lead for media, entertainment, and digital EMEA at Korn Ferry UK. “What gets lost is loyalty to the organization, as well as the sense of collectively tackling challenges—the creative kinetic energy of ideating together.” If current employees discuss their lack of connection and purpose with candidates and clients, experts say, the result can be reputational damage. “People talk, and they’ll admit that they’re just phoning it in, versus feeling that they really matter and are giving it their best,” says Tamara Rodman, senior client partner in the Culture, Change and Communications practice at Korn Ferry.

Remedying this disengagement starts with communication, says Amato. Corporate policies need to be coherent and make sense to individual employees—which likely involves providing different explanations to each department. “Think about how it’s going to play out for different teams,” says Amato. It’s rare for monolithic solutions to work across a whole organization.

Companies facing these levels of disengagement need to recreate purpose at work, which experts say begins with carefully incorporating two to three group work experiences into each in-office day. This means establishing environments and situations that give people a reason to come in. This could mean scheduling photo or video shoots, in-person brainstorms, or meet-and-greets with visitors, senior executives, and clients. Above all, “make it worthwhile for people to come in,” says Duncan.


For more information, contact Korn Ferry's People Strategy & Performance practice.