5 ways to make RTO (return to office) work

A mother with her toddler

What’s at the top of your 2024 talent strategy? If you said “return to office,” you’ve got lots of company.

More than two thirds of CEOs told KPMG they’re angling to be fully back on site in the near future; many, according to other reports, already are.

Leaders hope the proximity will spark collaboration, innovation, and camaraderie. And it could. But it will take more than coffee and key cards to make onsite work work. Employees have concerns — about families and flexibility and DEI, and whether lessons of the last few years have stuck.

True, the whole point of RTO is to reclaim some of the advantages of pre-pandemic life. But not everything about the “before” period was an advantage. For RTO to deliver, leaders will need to take a clear-eyed look at the realities of the past, and ensure that return to office is not a return to exactly the way things were.

What will employers need to address?

Hybrid equity: Face time used to be what the New York Times called a “proxy for productivity,” rewarding people for visibility, and hamstringing employees (mostly women) who needed flexibility to manage families and careers. Remote work leveled that playing field. The worry is that RTO could change it back. Already the Wall Street Journal reports onsite employees getting promoted considerably more often than remote colleagues, threatening a new “mommy track” for employees who accept the company’s offer to work part- or full-time at home. Changing that will require leaders to be deliberate about things like career tracks and performance reviews. “Experts think that there’s an opportunity for professional workplaces to update how they organize and evaluate work,” says the New York Times. “That would mean including assessments that aren’t based on who’s in the office the most.” 

The child care shortage: Working without child care at home only felt impossible. Getting to the office without it is actually stopping parent’s RTO before they get to the front door. Yet 40% of parents told our Modern Family Index they don’t have the child care they need. And those working at the office are even less likely than their WFH colleagues to say they had company benefits to help. That’s a lot of potential empty spaces for a population McKinsey calls your mentors, knowledge base, and “social fabric” of the organization. “Companies’ support for childcare,” writes McKinsey, “can turn worker attrition into attraction.”

Career confidence: RTO is but the latest upheaval in a period that’s been rife with it, challenging people’s security about career, future, and finances. No wonder they’re looking for more control – on skills development; credentials; and how to achieve those credentials without life-limiting piles of debt. Education help (something most employees in a recent study said they’re looking for) and cross-company career paths could be a salve during this next moment of change. And it’s a two-way street since companies need to keep up with market change, too. “Employees recognize skills as currency,” reads Bright Horizons’ Working Learner Index, “and they’re more likely than ever to gravitate to employers that support their educational pursuits."

Obstacles to inclusion:
Working from home freed people from hiding portions of themselves (culture, identity, gender) that felt unwelcome at work. Office life threatens a return to “self-editing” – something especially concerning for underrepresented employees, who are among the least likely to want to go back. “Seventy-nine percent of women of color,” wrote the authors of one study on HBR, “reported having to alter their appearance or demeanor.” Support will need to be robust, with reaffirmed commitments to all forms of DEI, and inclusion that’s a clearly stated mandate for all employees, not just DEI leaders. “Middle managers,” says one expert on Forbes, “are the missing key to DEI success.” 

Career-limiting stereotypes: Fathers are an important part of the caregiving equation. But too often they’re written off as the “helpers” whose participation is merely optional. That costs women since men who can only be earners ensure women are always primary caregivers – an advent that’s been compromising women’s careers for generations. Lockdown – when parenting had to be a team sport – made change seem imminent. But already two-tier career tracks that favor onsite work (see, hybrid equity, above) are creating concerns about a backslide. A permanent reset, says Paul Sullivan, head of The Company of Dads platform that advocates for change, will require company leaders to get on board. “By empowering men,” he told our Work/Life Equation podcast, “it’s also really good for working moms.” 

A final note: some good news for employers. Onsite is no longer the deal breaker it used to be, with one study showing more than half of employees open to a role that’s fully in person, and a University of Chicago study showing, with certain incentives, people are on board. The caveat is that few employers are offering those incentives. “Employees who are already going into the office,” writes Fortune of the University of Chicago study, “indicated that incentives such as commuter benefits, in-office childcare, free food and social gatherings could add at least ‘some’ more satisfaction.”

For the 64% of CEOs angling for RTO, it’s not just a fix for obstacles of yore, but an opportunity to get an edge today.  

A mother with her toddler