Divorce, climate change or RTO: What do workers fear the most?

In the last few years, an increasing number of organizations have rolled out return-to-office strategies as the COVID-19 pandemic subsided despite significant pushback from many employees. A new survey explored how resistant today’s employees are to RTO, with insights for HR leaders who continue to bridge the workforce and the C-suite on contentious issues like RTO.

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Recent research from career service LiveCareer, which surveyed nearly 4,000 U.S.-based workers, found that a stunning 43% of respondents say they are more afraid of having to work in an office full-time again than they are of losing a romantic relationship or getting divorced. An even greater share of workers surveyed (53%) say they fear the prospect of returning to the office full-time even more than climate change.

“If the prospect of going through a divorce or the life-altering effects of climate change seem less daunting to the workforce than going back to the office, clearly it’s time to rethink the uptick in return-to-office mandates,” says Eric Ciechanowski, a career expert at LiveCareer.

Flexibility: A necessity, not a choice

While divorce and climate change may seem like extreme alternatives to RTO, Ciechanowski says, the scenarios offered in the survey illustrate how important workplace flexibility has become for many Americans.

“The flexibility that remote and hybrid models offer seem to be a necessity now, not a choice,” he says. “Our study shows how passionate people are about protecting their ability to work from home.”

He notes that the pandemic showed workers that many jobs didn’t need to be performed in an office, a “revelation” for many.

Eric Ciechanowski, LiveCareer“Now that the veil has dropped, I think it will be difficult for most workers to un-see that fact,” Ciechanowski says.

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Particularly if an employer thrived during the pandemic with everyone working off-site, it’s going to be difficult to argue to employees that remote work is ineffective.

“I would advise employers to try to have an open mind and not be dead set on having everyone return to work if that’s not where their employees feel the most productive,” he says.

Considerations for designing an RTO strategy

Many organizations are still grappling with their long-term RTO decisions. When strategizing, Ciechanowski says, recruiting and retention should be top of mind, particularly as the body of research on employee perceptions of RTO policies grows.

For instance, iCIMS found that one-third of employees surveyed said they would leave their jobs if their employer required them to return to the office full-time. Ciechanowski cited another survey that found that nearly 30% of companies have threatened to fire workers who won’t comply with these policies.

“And, still, workers don’t want to go back,” he says, calling this a “very strong indication” of the high value employees today place on flexibility.

This is bolstered by recent research from Great Place to Work that found employee perceptions of RTO are greatly influenced by how flexible the RTO policy is: Among workers surveyed, those who were given the option to return to the office full-time, have a hybrid setup or stay remote were three times as likely as others to remain at their current employer.

Given the hot-button nature of the RTO debate, HR leaders won’t be able to make all of their employees happy, he adds. However, they can get creative with their RTO policies to achieve business goals while prioritizing employee satisfaction. For example, he says, employers could set performance goals workers must meet to continue working off-site. Or, they could compromise with a hybrid solution.
“RTO policies don’t have to be all or nothing,” he says.
While Ciechanowski says the survey findings about employee perceptions of RTO were “pretty shocking,” whether employees would actually choose to weather a natural disaster or relationship collapse rather than go back to the office full-time matters less than the underlying message: Workers feel very strongly about having access to remote and hybrid work options and are highly resistant to going back to the way things were pre-pandemic.

“That is very clear,” he says.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].