To make RTO work, HR and the CEO need to have some tough conversations

With the lazy days of summer now over, a growing number of employers are refocusing on mandating a return to the office—including video conferencing company Zoom, which came to symbolize remote work during the pandemic.

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In fact, the number of U.S. organizations with return-to-office mandates is expected to rise post-Labor Day from its current 50% to 80% by the end of the year, according to a report from real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL).

Before HR leaders roll out return-to-office requirements, they should address the elephant in the room with their CEO—Why does the organization actually need workers in the office?—says Brad Bell, professor of strategic human resources and director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Digging into this topic with the CEO can help an HR leader present a sound explanation of the new policy to the workforce—and also prepare the CEO for potential employee backlash, Bell says.

And there’s been plenty of employee backlash. Four of the five FAANG companies have threatened to fire employees who don’t adhere to their return-to-office attendance requirements, causing sharp criticism from employees on social media. Thousands of Disney workers signed a petition after the company rolled back its remote policy, and Amazon employees even went as far as staging an afternoon walkout to protest the company’s RTO policy.

How to navigate the high-wire act

Balancing the needs of the CEO—who may, like Zoom’s CEO, cite that RTO improves employee collaboration, innovation and productivity—with employees’ needs for flexibility can be akin to walking on a high wire for HR leaders.

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Here are some steps to navigate that balancing act and alleviate the tensions that can arise among HR, the CEO and the workforce.

Communicate the rationale for the decision

Once HR leaders really understand the rationale behind the CEO’s decision, they need to find good evidence or data to back it up, Bell says.

And then, it’s imperative to communicate to employees why a return-to-office policy is being put in place, why it’s important for the organization and the benefits it will bring or drawbacks it will avoid, advises Bell.

“What I repeatedly see through various surveys that I look at is a lot of organizations haven’t really communicated out the rationale behind their work models,” Bell says. “I think that sense of ambiguity leaves employees in a vacuum to fill in whatever rationale that makes sense to them.”

Point to Zoom’s RTO policy to bolster rational justification?

Given Zoom’s prominent role in video conferencing for remote workers during the pandemic, the decision by its CEO to bring workers back to the office a couple of times a week to further spur innovation may seem like something HR leaders could leverage in providing justification for their own RTO efforts—depending on the organization.

In an informal HRE poll, a third of survey participants agreed that Zoom’s move could be helpful or useful in their own efforts to bring employees back to the office.

“Our company had just started working on a return to office two days a week beginning in January 2024, so it helped to validate the decision,” one HRE reader said.

Another reader noted, “I think it’s important to understand what other companies have done and to learn from their experience. However, ultimately, an HR leader must advocate for what works best for their individual business.”

Bell echoed similar thoughts.

“HR leaders should try to figure out what is a compelling rationale within your organization where it really makes sense given what the organization is trying to accomplish,” Bell says.

Be bold

Even if a CEO insists that employees need to return to the office to improve the performance of the company, HR leaders still need to point out the potential downsides of mandating return-to-office.

Most employees want some degree of flexibility and may look for employers based on those preferences, Bell warns. As a result, RTO policies can make recruitment and retention more difficult for an employer, he adds.

“It’s really the responsibility of HR leaders to lay those [risks] out to the CEO or business leader,” Bell says. “They might be looking at this just from the business number side of things and maybe aren’t really thinking about implications to their talent or the broader employee kind of experience. I think that’s a really critical role that HR has to play.”

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.