When J.M. Smucker leaders chose to ask workers to come into its company headquarters in Orrville, Ohio, for as few as six days a month, during what they called 22 “core” weeks out of the year, it turned a lot of heads. The plan meant that its 1,300 corporate workers would be at its sprawling HQ just 25 percent of the time. The major food and beverage manufacturer created one of the most unique return-to-office strategies that a major company has mandated in the U.S. It’s also further proof that the past three years of push and pull to get workers back to the office have led many firms to collect feedback from employees, experiment with different plans, and maybe most importantly, embrace the nuance of this new office landscape. As companies try to be more critical about the way they utilize their offices, a new understanding of workers’ needs has led many companies to shift RTO plans away from the big picture and zoom into individual teams.
Stricter mandates from major employers started becoming more common at the beginning of 2023 as company leaders looked to promote collaboration and productivity. Disney asked workers to come back four days out of the week; Amazon asked employees for three, and other companies, including Meta, BlackRock, and Zoom, set September of this year as a deadline for returning. Google made headlines when it announced that not coming into the workplace would impact performance reviews.
But as companies adopted more stringent requirements, backlash soon followed. Company-wide mandates like these have continued to be unpopular with workers, and more leaders are finding that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense for most companies. Sure, some firms have reasons to apply the same mandates to the entire company, like those in the life sciences and biotech sectors, for example. But for others, they need to consider factors like the size and location of the office, the type of work each team requires, and the opinions of key personnel in each department.
“As we’re talking with clients, we are seeing more creativity and innovation and a willingness to try things to see what ultimately is driving business outcomes,” said Michelle Osburn, Principal and Senior Director with U.S. Workplace Consulting at Avison Young. “I think that’s a work in progress for most of our clients.” Osburn and her team continue to advise companies to find a tailored approach that works best for their specific needs, but there are three major categories of policies that many companies are still gravitating toward.
One is a structured policy that is company-wide and asks for a certain number of days a week, a percentage of the week, or specific days each week. Another is mandating in-person work on a more quarterly basis, where workers can live where they choose but are expected to come into the office a certain number of times a quarter. These tend to be the most prevalent models among tech companies and other industries with more remote workers. “They’re setting up times to connect in the office,” Osburn said, adding that this kind of RTO plan is creating a real estate puzzle for professionals like her. “How do you develop space for day-to-day and a quarterly influx of people?” she said. “A lot of people have historically been doing quarterly meetings offsite, so the big change is doing it onsite.”
The third category of RTO requirements is the one that Osburn gets the most questions about from clients. This is one that moves away from a company-wide policy and focuses instead on departmental and team strategies. After all, a work model that works for a product development team may not be the right fit for a finance team. “It’s really about talking with leaders about the functions of departments and surveying employees on what their preferences might be and managing gaps between what a business needs and what talent is expecting,” Osburn said.
Finding the right office plan hasn’t been easy for a lot of companies; many high-profile ones have flip-flopped on the issue while trying to fine-tune their strategy. A survey released in August found that 80 percent of company leaders polled in the U.S. regretted their initial RTO plans and would have done things differently if they had better understood what their employees wanted. “About a third of companies keep changing their mind,” said Bryan Berthold, Global Lead of Workplace Experience at Cushman & Wakefield. “Right now, we’re probably seeing about two-thirds of companies—it used to be half—migrating to a three-day-a-week hybrid solution, but they’re all going about it differently.” Berthold’s also had clients that are choosing to mandate all employees be in the workplace on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as two other days of a worker’s choice the rest of the month. “I’m seeing a lot more kind of squished into the middle of the week,” Berthold said.
Capital One is a good example of this. Headquartered in McLean, Virginia, the bank said earlier this year it was requiring corporate workers to be in the office at its headquarters and several other U.S. offices Tuesday through Thursday while allowing remote work on Mondays and Fridays. Capital One is one of the largest employers in the Richmond, Virginia area, with 13,000 employees, while nationwide, the company has a workforce of 52,000. Capital One’s original hybrid plan was announced in the spring of 2022 and was the same schedule—Tuesday through Thursday in the office, Monday and Friday at home–-but it was more of a request than a firm mandate. However, like many companies in 2023, Capital One leaders took a firmer stance on the hybrid schedule while still trying to find a middle ground. “We are a company that both cherishes personal flexibility and takes pride in its vibrant in-person culture and, as was true before the pandemic, expectations of being in the office will be balanced with personal life flexibility,” the company said.
Given the immediate backlash and pushback that strict, company-wide mandates have often generated, collecting and analyzing data has become an important measure for firms. In a recent survey, Cushman & Wakefield found that mandates increased office occupancy but decreased employee engagement. Workers who did not have a choice in where to work posted had lower engagement scores than workers who did have a choice in work location. Organizations are looking more closely at things like office occupancy, how many people are leaving the company, and what other firms are doing in terms of office mandates. “These are unprecedented times because every company is going through it together,” Berthold said. “I think it’s something that has to be managed very carefully because talent will also have choices.”
In general, it seems more office users are finding that the work models they set are part of a team-wide conversation that requires team-based decisions. “Most of what I see in the press is me, myself and I: I like this, I like that. But is it really right for my team and the company? That’s what companies are realizing; the way teams work and how they work together is really what the new focus is,” Berthold explained. He’s seeing more around teams having these conversations and teams being able to have the power to decide how often to come in and for what purpose and letting the data collected from this model drive where the occupancy should be. “You’ll see more of that in 2024 instead of ‘let’s just make a mandate,’” he said.
Understanding the best way to use an office for any organization is harder than ever. But it has proven to be a critical one. To both keep employees happy and their business performing at its highest, many company leaders have evolved their thinking around work models and are embracing strategies that allow attendance requirements to be set at the department and team level rather than making a company-wide mandate. Companies like Smuckers and its “core weeks” have sought to strike a balance between required in-person days and remote work through creative strategies and will be watching closely to see how these plans pan out in the long term. Developing a return-to-office plan that makes everyone in an organization happy may not be possible, but finding a middle ground that takes employees’ needs into consideration will certainly count for a lot.