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Gleb Tsipursky


The Four Horsemen of the Mandated Return to Office

How to reduce employee resistance

Published: Monday, January 30, 2023 - 13:03

As increasing numbers of companies are requiring employees to return to the office for 3–5 days per week this fall, they’re running into the buzzsaw of what one of my clients calls the “Four Horsemen of the Required Return to Office”—challenges with resistance, attrition, quiet quitting, and diversity.

The Four Horsemen stem from the fact that workers who are capable of working remotely prefer to do so most or all of the time. For example, an Aug. 2022 Gallup survey of remote-capable workers shows that 34 percent of respondents want to work full-time remotely, 60 percent want to work a flexible hybrid schedule, and only 6 percent want to work in a traditional office setting. A June 2022 McKinsey survey of all workers, remote-capable and not, provides further context on preferences for hybrid work. It found that 32 percent of respondents want to work full-time remotely, 10 percent want to work remotely four days a week, 16 percent three days a week, 18 percent two days a week, 13 percent one day a week, and 13 percent prefer full-time in-office work. Thus more than half of all respondents want to work less than half the time in the office. And a Sept. 2022 survey from the School of Politics and Economics at King’s College reported that a quarter of respondents would quit if forced to return to the office full time.

It’s no wonder that workers facing return-to-office mandates show resistance, the first of the Four Horsemen. For example, the leadership of Apple required its employees to come to the office three days a week. While Apple employees are not known for stirring trouble, in this case 1,000 employees signed a petition requesting more flexibility. General Motors announced in a message on Friday, Sept. 23, that all salaried employees would have to return to the office three days a week. The message sparked intense employee backlash, leading to GM walking back its requirements and delaying any required return to office to next year.

In a Sept. 2022 survey, Gartner found that only 3 percent of companies would fire noncompliant employees, and only 30 percent would have HR talk to those who don’t show up. No wonder that large U.S. banks trying to force employees back to the office are meeting with high rates of noncompliance—up to 50 percent. And many other employees are showing up for a part of the workday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Labor Day return-to-office mandates resulted in a rise in office occupancy in early September, reaching 47.5 percent during the week ending Sept. 14 in 10 major cities tracked by Kastle Systems, a security access-card provider. Yet the office occupancy declined to 47.3 percent by the end of the week ending Sept. 21, and to 47.2 percent the following week.

Given this resistance, some workers simply quit, joining the Great Resignation, making attrition the second of the Four Horsemen. That includes top-level executives: Ian Goodfellow, who led machine learning at Apple, quit in protest over Apple’s mandated return to office of three days a week. It also includes many rank-and-file staff, with publications featuring the stories of employees who quit rather than returning to the office for 3–5 days per week. Or consider a National Bureau of Economic Research paper about a study at Trip.com, one of the largest travel agencies in the world. It randomly assigned some engineers, marketing workers, and finance workers to work some of their time remotely, and others in the same roles to full-time in-office work. Those who worked on a hybrid schedule had 35 percent better retention.

Even finance, the industry leading the charge for returning to the office, suffered significant churn. European banks, which offer more flexible hybrid work policies, are using these to hire talented staff from the less flexible U.S. banks. Smaller and more flexible financial planning firms are headhunting financial planners in larger and less flexible companies. Even bankers at the top banks, like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, are leaving due to the return to office requirements.

Perhaps even more dangerous than resistance and attrition is the third of the Four Horsemen: quiet quitting. That term refers to employees psychologically disengaging from their work and doing just enough to get by without getting in trouble. Quiet quitting can be worse than the much more obvious resistance or attrition, because quiet quitting rots a company’s culture from within.

A Sept. 2022 survey by Gallup found that such quiet quitters make up about half of the U.S. workforce. Forcing employees to come to the office under the threat of discipline leads to disengagement, fear, and distrust, according to Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup. Indeed, Gallup found that if people are required to come to the office for more time than they prefer, “employees experience significantly lower engagement, significantly lower well-being, significantly higher intent to leave, [and] significantly higher levels of burnout.” By contrast, employees feel gratitude to companies that give them more flexibility and show trust. As one such employee said, “If my company is going to come in and give me this flexibility, then I’m going to be the first to give them 100 percent.”

Indeed, research by Stanford University even before the pandemic found that workers who spent four days a week working remotely were 9 percent more engaged than in-office staff. Gallup finds that “the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60 percent to 80 percent of their time—or three to four days in a five-day workweek—working off-site.” A June 2022 Citrix survey finds that 56 percent of fully-remote workers feel engaged, but only 51 percent of in-office employees do. The evidence is backed up by a CNBC survey from June 2022 that found 52 percent of fully remote workers say they are very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 47 percent of those working full-time in the office. No wonder, then, that mandates forcing employees to come to the office result in quiet quitting.

The final of the Four Horsemen relates to the serious loss of diversity associated with the mandated office return. A Future Forum survey found that 21 percent of all white knowledge workers wanted a return to full-time in-office work, but only 3 percent of all Black knowledge workers wanted the same. That’s a huge difference! Another Future Forum survey found that 38 percent of Black men wanted a fully flexible schedule, but only 26 percent of white men. The Society for Human Resource Management found that half of all Black office workers wanted to work from home permanently, while only 39 percent of white workers did so.

Why do we see this difference? It’s because Black professionals still suffer from discrimination and microaggressions in the office, and are less vulnerable to harassment in remote work. Similar findings apply to other underrepresented groups.

Evidence shows that underrepresented groups are leaving employers who mandate a return to the office and are fleeing to more flexible companies. For example, Meta Platforms offers permanent fully remote work options. By doing so, Meta found, according to Sandra Altiné, Meta’s VP of Workforce Diversity and Inclusion, that “embracing remote work and being distributed-first has allowed Meta to become a more diverse company.” For example, in 2019, Meta committed to a five-year goal of doubling the number of Black and Hispanic workers in the U.S. and the number of women in its global workforce. Thanks to remote work, Meta’s 2022 Diversity Report shows that it attained and even outperformed its 2019 five-year goals for diversity two years ahead of its original plans.

While Meta’s diversity goals are benefiting from remote work, other companies that offer less flexibility have diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) staff ringing alarm bells about how the desire for remote work among underrepresented groups threatens diversity goals. After all, the workers who are going to Meta are coming from somewhere, right? Underrepresented groups are joining the Great Resignation in greater numbers in the context of the mandated office returns.

In working with clients who wish to bring their employees back to the office to slay the Four Horsemen, I find a combination of strategies to be crucial. Before launching an office return, we consider compensation policies. A June 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resources reports that 48 percent of survey respondents will “definitely” look for a full-time WFH job in their next search. To get them to stay at a full-time job with a 30-minute commute, they would need a 20 percent pay raise. For a hybrid job with the same commute, they would need a pay raise of 10 percent. A September 2022 survey by Goodhire found that 73 percent of workers believe companies should pay in-office workers more than remote workers. Indeed, research by Owl Labs suggests that it costs an average of $863/month for the average office worker to commute to work versus staying at home, which is about $432/month for utilities, office supplies, and so on.

Those data helped my clients develop a fair compensation plan that paid staff a higher salary if they spent more time in the office. Doing so helped address the first two Horsemen, resistance and attrition. Some of my clients even used that policy as a simple yet effective incentive to nudge most of their staff to return to the office in a way that minimized resistance and attrition while saving significantly on payroll for the small minority who chose to work remotely.

Addressing quiet quitting required a range of techniques. One involved working on improving culture and belonging, such as retreats with fun team-building exercises. Another centered on helping staff address burnout, such as by providing mental health benefits. Finally, it helps if employees feel you care about their professional development: upskilling pays off.

To help prevent diversity losses, as well as facilitate underrepresented groups getting promoted, it’s valuable to create a formal mentoring program with a special focus on underprivileged staff. That means providing minority staff with two mentors, one from the same minority group and one representing the majority population. Doing so offers the minority mentee a diverse network of connections and experiences to draw on among both minority and majority staff. It provides mentees with the implicit knowledge and relationships they will need to advance, while the fact that each mentee has two mentors lightens the load on each mentor and makes the workload manageable.

So if you are committed to returning to a mostly or fully in-person workforce, remember that you need to watch out for—and defeat—the Four Horsemen. Make a plan in advance and determine how you will overcome these problems before they threaten the success of your return-to-office plan.


About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps quality professionals make the wisest decisions on the future of work as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. A proud Ukrainian American, he is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His cutting-edge thought leadership has been featured in more than 650 articles in prominent publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and USA Today. His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and more than 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipurskyLinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course


Face time

The concept of 8 hrs face time needs to end.

Paying more to come in to work and chat, gossip, visit, is not fair practice.

Pay people for what they accomplish, not how long it takes them, and not how long they are in a building.

Most people wanting to work from home are not invlolved with clicques, chat, or gossip, and just want to get their work done.

WFH is likely considerably more productive than office workers, not less.

And in fact, most surveys and stories have also confirmed this.

Opinion or fact?

You quote a lot of statistics to back up some valid points and then you throw in your own opinions and present them as facts also, with no proof.

"It’s because Black professionals still suffer from discrimination and microaggressions in the office, and are less vulnerable to harassment in remote work."

Was this part of the survey? Are you just gaslighting? 

Fact based articles are fine and so are opinion-based articles, but when you try to blur the lines, that is an issue. 

Team Building Exercises

I think maybe you should look more closely at the so-called "team building exercises".  I've yet to participate in one, or hear anyone who did participate in one, say they felt it achieved any positive payoffs.  It's one of those "sounds like it would help" things that doesn't, and sometimes makes things worse.

Four Horsemen?

"Death" is fairly obvious, and I suppose spending $20 for lunch in the office district instead of maybe $4 for lunch out of the fridge at home is close enough to "Famine". Not sure where "War" and "Conquest" fit in....