Leading a Return to the Office Without Losing Your Team

While some organizations have been able to fully embrace a remote model, most have grappled to varying extents with a return to in-person work. The process of trying to get employees back into the office continues into 2024. An online survey conducted by Resume Builder (2023) found that, of businesses with physical spaces, 90% of companies plan to return to the office by the end of 2024.

Some organizations have faced significant pushback from employees who’d prefer to continue working remotely. At this stage in the game, leaders in organizations that continue to face employee resistance seem to be abandoning gentler approaches that haven’t yielded results. Leaders have become more willing to “get tough” and use more of a negative reinforcement or “do it or else” strategy to gain and maintain compliance with return to office (RTO) mandates. 

Take, for example, the viral Internet Brands video intended to kick off a widespread RTO. If you haven’t already seen the video, I’d encourage you to give it a view. It was originally posted to the company’s public Vimeo page, but quickly circulated across social media where it was subject to widespread scrutiny. The video is rife with negative reinforcement, closing with an…interesting juxtaposition of employees dancing to upbeat music with ominous text below reading “we mean business” and “don’t mess with us.”

Let’s be clear – there is a time and place to use negative reinforcement. It’s one of four consequences in the behavioral leadership toolkit, and the most skilled leaders use all their tools when appropriate. However, the untactful or overuse of negative consequences (or the threat of such consequences) to motivate behavior can cost leaders and organizations in employee performance, results, and reputation. Consider the following leadership errors commonly made in RTO pushes and alternative approaches. 

Error 1: Failing to be clear and sincere in communications.

After that RTO video mentioned earlier was criticized in the media, Internet Brands responded, “Corporate videos are corporate videos” and included a shrug emoji. From my perspective, this statement reflects the unfortunate truth that we’ve come to accept “fake” communication at work. It tells me that people within many organizations have become used to delivering and receiving communications that are artificially polite and oftentimes transparently insincere. You can’t blame individual leaders or employees for doing it. This style of communication is often seen as necessary to preserve a sense of harmony (even if it’s false) and maintain one’s own paycheck.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it really shouldn’t. Right below that thin veneer of false harmony, there often lies a pool of dissatisfaction, disengagement, and resentment. That’s when you get quiet quitting or malicious compliance – anything to get a jab in. Instead, it’s better to toss out the curated script and speak to people like people. Openly acknowledge the barriers discouraging people from coming in, and if you don’t know, ask for that feedback. If customers and business operations truly demand and require in-person work despite the barriers, explain why that’s the case. Fuzzy statements like “we’re better when we’re together” will not resonate with the person saving lots of time and money by avoiding a long commute. Instead, get into the weeds and share examples of how you’re able to deliver a better product or service by being in person more often. It’s not a silver bullet, but taking the time and effort to communicate sincerely will reduce the need to use negative consequences and the blowback that comes along with them. 

Error 2: Assuming that in-person work automatically translates into more productivity. 

Working face-to-face or near others has benefits that can be difficult to replicate in a remote context. Ideas can often be exchanged quicker during an in-person conversation rather than via email or direct messaging. You can pick up on subtle but possibly critical cues that may be lost electronically such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. There are more spontaneous opportunities to socialize, which can lead to stronger relationships. These factors can translate into real gains for a business or organization. According to a Resume Builder (2023) survey, leaders in companies that have already returned to the office reported improvements in revenue, productivity, worker retention, employee relationships, and company culture.

However, just because in-person work can lead to more productivity doesn’t mean that it necessarily will for everyone or every task. For some, the office environment offers more distractions or stress, which can cause productivity to plummet. Think of a scenario where you’re on the verge of a creative breakthrough, only to face a series of back-to-back interruptions from coworkers that really weren’t time sensitive or urgent. Not all office workers have the luxury of being able to close a door or set their status to “do not disturb.” 

The idea that in-person work can, at times, reduce productivity is supported by some self-reported employee data. An Eagle Hill (2023) survey of 1,350 randomly sampled employees across the U.S. found that employees favored remote work for tasks that required deep thinking and research and favored in-person work for onboarding or managing team members. Employees were almost evenly divided when asked whether they’d be more productive spending a full vs partial day in the office if they were required to go in. Giving employees the flexibility to work in the environment that’s most conducive to their productivity will be more effective than trying to enforce a blanket in-person policy. 

Error 3: Failing to pair RTO mandates with a proactive engagement strategy.

To make sure employees are abiding by RTO requirements, many companies are planning some sort of accountability strategy. Accountability usually involves at least two components. The first is measurement, to get a read on how often the behavior of interest is happening. The second is consequences, to increase or decrease the probability of that behavior happening again. Applied to an RTO context, this usually looks like measuring whether people show up in person and arranging punishment/discipline for people that fail to meet expectations. 

This sort of accountability strategy alone is problematic for several reasons. Employees reluctant to return are likely to resent the idea that their boss is keeping a close eye on badge swipes or desk sensors. Leaders in general already default to providing negative consequences for underperformance and ignoring satisfactory performance. An influx of attendance data is likely to correspond with an uptick in punishment, eroding relationships and fostering  distrust. When attendance measurements do reflect expectations, there’s no guarantee that will translate into meaningful improvements in results. Don’t be surprised when people pop in just to show face and resist any future attempts at performance measurement with all their might. 

Instead, consider developing a proactive engagement or positive accountability strategy. Give people a reason to come in more often outside of just escaping or avoiding punishment. This can begin with imagining yourself in an employee’s shoes and conducting a systematic analysis of the positives and negatives they experience staying at home versus coming into the office. If you find the scales tipped in the negative direction (from their perspective, not yours) arrange for more positive consequences in their work environment. 

No, this doesn’t just mean pizza, coffee, donuts, or compulsory team happy hours. Start by expressing genuine praise and appreciation for making the change. Point out the specific benefits that a return to in-person work has produced if those results are opaque to the employee. Better yet, ask what positives they are starting to notice and point out improvements that you’ve noticed (even if small). Coach them to become more attuned to how the change is improving their performance or career trajectory. We all have different motivators and preferences, so knowing your team and customizing your engagement approach based on the individual is key. 

The return to in-person work remains a complex challenge for many organizations in 2024, and it’s clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. As organizations shift to a more assertive, do it or else approach, the responsibility falls to leaders to see it through. Using sincere and transparent communication, considering the nuances of productivity in the workplace, and pairing mandates with a positive engagement strategy can reduce the fallout from using negative consequences and help employees experience some of the real benefits.

Eagle Hill. (2023). Employees weigh in on workplace flexibility amid rollback of remote work policies. What’s at stake? https://www.eaglehillconsulting.com/insights/workplace-flexibility-remo…;

Resume Builder. (2023). 90% of companies will return to office by the end of 2024. https://www.resumebuilder.com/90-of-companies-will-return-to-office-by-…


Posted by Brian Molina, Ph.D.

Brian has been in the field of Behavioral Science for over 8 years. He has helped organizations improve their operations and service delivery by assessing performance and implementing learning and performance solutions to drive desired outcomes. He has broad experience partnering with business, non-profit, and public sector entities.