Summit Team Building

Return to Office Mandate. The Missing Ingredient.

If you work for the federal government, you’ll know that January 16, 2023 is when their return to office mandate came into effect.  A…notable, I suppose, day for you. You may be having various emotions associated with this day, and I’d venture to suggest that many of these could be related to frustration.

If you don’t work for the federal government and have no idea what I’m talking about, January 16 is the day that federal public servants began mandatorily returning to office buildings for at least 2-3 days a week. Many – understandably – are not happy about this.

Although we’re just about one month into the new year at this point, returning to the office is shaping up to be one of the most important workplace trends of 2023. With crowds of major companies, including Goldman Sachs, Starbucks, Uber, Disney, Google, JP Morgan, and yes – Twitter – more firmly mandating return to office policies beginning this year, this will likely continue to be a recurring issue this year.

Returning to the Office: Why the Controversy?!?!

Now, you’ll likely have one of two responses to this issue. I mean, you may not even think that it should be an issue to begin with. If you’re a mid-level or senior leader who is pushing for returning to the office because you’re longing to get back to the world before the pandemic, or you just prefer a full, buzzing office, you’re not alone. Why would you not return to the office? Shouldn’t it be a no brainer?

Even if you’re in that camp, though, you’ve likely noticed a good amount of pushback in your organization, and for that, you’re also not alone. The federal government is facing opposition from unions fighting back against the return to office policies. On the corporate end, GM, Amazon, and Apple all faced so much internal opposition that it had to walk back on its return to office plans. Employees seem to overwhelmingly prefer working from home.

So what’s the deal with the disconnect here, and what do we do about it?

The problem of conflicting wishes between teams and leaders is so significant that Bryan Robinson of Forbes calls this “The Great Mismatch” of 2023. Like many aspects of our lives in this decade, there’s a ton of polarization on this issue.

If you’re a leader who’s caught in the middle of this, we have some ideas for you.

Understand the Resistance

To motivate people to return to the office, you first need to recognize the source of the resistance. People have invested in their home workspaces, gas and parking are expensive, and some have even moved far from the office.

Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that there’s a significant cost that’s being asked of teams and employees when you tell them to return to the office. Teams are going to want to have a tangible return on investment if they’re going to happily and voluntarily conform to the return-to-office requests.

Enforcing return-to-office policies militantly and without concern for teams’ opinions will devastate employee morale, engagement, and retention. Even if the reasons, such as conflicts and challenges in virtual collaboration, are obvious to you, you need to fully understand and communicate the value of going back to the office.

What Would Motivate Teams to Return to the Office?

Although there are many reasons different organizations would want teams to return to offices, interesting research by Microsoft World Trend Index sheds some light on this issue. They found that more than 80% of the employees they surveyed would be motivated to return to the office to rebuild team bonds and socialize with their coworkers.

So what would motivate employees to return to the office? One word – relationships.


Investing In Relationships

As Chris Capossela of HBR eloquently puts it, if we want to get people back in the office, we have to make it social.

This is, however, a bigger challenge than it might sound. In a world where we’re more connected than ever, we are – ironically – fighting a battle of disconnection. The survey I referenced above also tells us that: 

  • Roughly half of the employees they surveyed said that their relationships with colleagues outside of their immediate team have significantly weakened.
  • More than 40% reported feeling disconnected from their company as a whole.
  • Nearly 70% of leaders said that ensuring cohesion and connection with teams has been a significant challenge due to the shift to hybrid work. 

So, it’s critical in 2023 for leaders to begin to prioritize building and rebuilding connections. Getting employees back in the office is more than just getting folks back in their seats – it’s about rebuilding relationships and team bonds.

To do this, Caposela suggests that leaders need to “design experiences that bring people together in new ways”. 

It’s a big task – and we want you to know that we’re here to help. 

Whether that means hosting once-a-quarter in-person team building activities, or planning an offsite team building meeting, we’ve been designing innovative experiences that bring people together for several decades now, and would be happy to speak with you about how we can help. 

Make the most of the precious time that you have together with your team. Contact us today! 

Lewis Lau

With a BA in Psychology and MA in Applied Health Sciences from Brock University, Lewis has spent the past decade reviewing and conducting original empirical research on leadership and team development. He is especially passionate about drawing applicable and relevant insights from current and credible empirical studies from various disciplines, and believes high-quality, intersectional research should inform best practices.

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