Tough or Lax on RTO Policies?

Plenty of firms have imposed office-work mandates, but less than one-fifth of people in finance are back five days a week. Are top bosses being made aware?

Over the last two years, the top leaders in multiple industries have made very public statements demanding that employees return to the office the majority of the time. HR departments have gone so far as to rewrite their attendance policies, decreeing that not working at the office could affect workers’ eligibility for pay raises or promotions and even jeopardize their continued employment.

And yet, new data suggests that people are a long way from returning to the office full-time—even in sectors which, like finance, have been particularly adamant about in-office policies. According to a study by software company Scoop, which tracks scheduling policies for financial-services firms, only 16% of workers at commercial banks are back five days a week. Other industries in that sector have even lower figures—investment managers at 8%, insurers at 6%, and fintech firms at 5%.

Overall, average office occupancy in large cities has been hovering at around 50% since January 2023, according to Kastle Systems, which measures keycard swipes at office buildings.

The issue, experts say, might not be with policies, but with their enforcement. “Managers are supposed to track attendance, but rarely do,” says Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “It’s too much pressure on them.”

Midlevel managers don’t want to be traffic cops, experts say. As it is, they’re already under pressure not only to increase productivity but also to give their direct reports equal opportunities for development and consideration for projects. Recently, many managers have seen proportionally lower salary gains than lower-level workers. In some cases, the pay for managers may be the same as that of individual contributors, but with many more headaches. A 2023 survey indicated that about one-quarter of midlevel leaders “feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities” and “don’t feel mentally engaged at work.”

If they haven’t asked direct supervisors to track attendance, many corporate leaders have requested that HR departments do so. But even this tracking often isn’t robust; its accompanying enforcement may be similarly weak. Even if an increasing number of HR departments are beginning to log employee attendance, Kaplan estimates, less than 50% are actually doing it.

While CEOs might not openly admit it, experts say, at least some might privately be OK with being less aggressive on attendance. That’s a big change from late 2022 and early 2023, when many of the strictest office attendance policies were announced. Back then, as the sizzling job market began to cool, many employers felt emboldened—confident that productivity would be higher in the office and less concerned that employees would quit outright, says Chad Astmann, Korn Ferry’s co-head of global investment management. Those leaders were convinced that they were regaining leverage they’d lost during the Great Resignation era.

But the job market has remained quite strong, with job openings well above pre-pandemic levels, low levels of unemployment, and rising real wages. Today, an employee ordered to work one more day a week might instead seek a new job. Indeed, high-performing employees are twice as likely to consider leaving an employer that imposes a strict RTO policy, according to a late-2023 study. “No one wants to lose high performers, but you might not get what you think you’ll get by mandating this,” says Dennis Deans, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global human resources.


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