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RTO may be a ‘power grab’ that doesn’t improve performance, researchers say



Return-to-office mandates not only hurt employee satisfaction but also don’t improve a company’s performance, according to new research from the University of Pittsburgh.

However, allowing high-performing employees to work at home could boost productivity and ultimately retention, the study authors wrote.

“Our findings are consistent with employees’ concerns that managers use RTO for power grabbing and blaming employees for poor performance,” researchers Mark Ma, associate professor of business administration, and Yuye Ding, a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, said in a statement.

“We believe our empirical evidence can better assist managers and shareholders in assessing the value of adopting an RTO mandate and offers guidance for firms in crafting effective workplace policies after the pandemic,” they said.

Ma and Ding examined RTO mandates among a sample of S&P 500 firms and looked at the effects on employees, including job satisfaction data from Glassdoor. They used difference-in-difference tests to determine the changes in employees’ ratings of overall job satisfaction, work-life balance and senior management after a company announced an RTO mandate. They also assessed a mandate’s impact on financial performance and firm values.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that companies deploy RTO mandates to “reassert control” and use employees as a “scapegoat for bad firm performance.” They also don’t think managers call employees back into the office due to beliefs that in-office work will boost profits or productivity. 

Instead, companies shouldn’t force employees to go back to in-person work — and those who perform well at home should be allowed to continue at home, the researchers concluded. In addition, monthly in-person team-building activities could build company culture, which could in turn help with problem-solving and brainstorming during hybrid collaborations.

Companies are reporting mixed RTO trends so far this year: Some workers are heeding the call back to the office, while others are following through on plans to quit.

Rather than return to the office, some employees are considering virtual out-of-state jobs, according to a recent iCIMS report. About a third of employees said they’d consider looking for a new job if their company implemented a full-time RTO mandate.

As trends continue to shift, employers can avoid several RTO mistakes when bringing employees back to the office. Most of all, leaders can signal their trust in employees and create flexible plans based on both the workers’ desires and the company’s needs.

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