Return to Office Mandates: Exploring Two Perspectives

Return to office mandates, depicted by a young man carrying a laptop bag and a face mask into an office.

The ongoing debate over return to office (RTO) mandates continues to receive a lot of attention. In Canada, employers began rolling out return to the workplace policies in mid-to-late 2022. In December 2022, the Canadian federal government announced that, starting in the spring of 2023, public servants would be required to work at least two to three days a week in person. As the world continues to adjust and struggle with the post-pandemic work scene, conflict and debate between employers and employees persists. What are the main points on both sides of this debate? How can we, as career professionals, support our clients in making informed decisions when it comes to their options?

What is a Mandate?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a mandate as “to officially require (something); making (something) mandatory; an order. Having read that definition, the first thought that came to my mind was that mandates are authoritarian, commanding, not welcoming, and one-sided. How about you? It could be that the choice of the term “mandate” is part of the reason that RTO continues to be contentious.

Return policies are being implemented full throttle in many workplaces. Based on a survey of 1000 employers, Resume Builder reports that 90% of companies will mandate a physical return to the workplace by the end of 2024, in spite of some regrets that have been voiced by employers who led the pack in implementing RTO. Generally, the remorse centres around company leaders not having taken the time to gather pertinent information to evaluate and measure the benefits – tangible and intangible – of in-person work before they issued sweeping commands to return. They weren’t able to support and explain the “why’s” behind their decision, which resulted in worker pushback.

Return to Office From the Employer’s Perspective

Productivity and Collaboration: It seems that the number one reason for return to work mandates is declining productivity; in fact, it has fallen more than expected. Employers also bring up other reasons like the lack of collaboration which may have a negative impact on one’s career advancement opportunities, especially for junior employees who usually need more guidance and mentorship. This also includes questions about office space use. Major companies are requiring employees to return to the office full or part-time. Even Zoom is asking employees to come to the office twice a week. In-person work cultivates a more cooperative and creative climate. Up close and personal associations can prompt conversations at any time and thought-sharing that may be deficient in remote work settings.

Company Culture: This is a big concern for bosses! They believe that to develop a strong sense of belonging and to foster teamwork, in-office presence is necessary. The myths around remote and hybrid work are still strong.

Employee Wellbeing: Some employers believe that returning to work has benefits such as better work/life balance, more social interaction, reduced stress levels, and improved mental health, just to name a few.

Return to Office From the Employee’s Perspective

Priority Change: For the majority of employees, the pandemic was a time to reassess priorities. Remote work was not accessible to everyone before COVID and, initially, it was an adjustment. However, having experienced work from home, many employees now wonder how they ever lived without it. Remote work become a priority for work/life satisfaction. Workers continue to want flexibility and some are ready to quit if employers don’t see it their way.

Geographical Relocation: Remote work allowed many employees to leave cities where the cost of rent, commuting, etc. was skyrocketing. They were able to relocate and live and work any distance from their employer, while continuing to be productive. Some employees even moved to different provinces. Now, RTO mandates mean these individuals probably have to re-think their living arrangements — or their employment status.

Health Concerns: Many employees felt relatively safe and in control of their environment and their health while working remotely. Now, RTO mandates mean a loss of that control. Some workers worry about exposure to COVID now that everyone is together in spaces where masking and vaccinations are no longer required.

Layoffs in Disguise: Some are wondering whether RTO mandates are being used as a method of reducing staff, in place of formal layoffs. Workplace experts agree it’s a tactic that might be implemented to reduce expenses as companies try to regain their footing post-pandemic. When workers quit because they’ve been ordered to show up in person, the company is spared the cost of severance packages. Return mandates are highlighting a power struggle where companies want to reestablish who’s in charge and workers want to stay true to their goals and values.

How Can We Support Our Clients?

Return to work mandates affect both the private and the public sectors. According to The Professional Institute of Public Service Canada, “Employers have the right to call workers back into the office, but employees have rights, too.” It’s important for career professionals and employees to know what their rights are.

As career practitioners, it’s vital that we be familiar with the latest developments and regulations in our region as the workplace landscape is constantly changing. Let’s invite our clients to reassess their priorities in light of new circumstances. What would returning to the office mean to them? How would it affect them, both positively and negatively? What options are worth exploring? What is their timeline?

Whether the employer is offering a hybrid work arrangement or ending remote work entirely, our clients’ answers will guide us in suggesting options. Is the employer open to negotiation and compromise? Or is it time to start the search for a new job? Also, encourage clients to seek legal or union support, where appropriate and available.

Clarity and Communication are Key

It’s my personal view that without open, clear, and honest communications, the debate, disagreements, and challenges will continue. When both sides know what they want, and can rationally explain why they want it, it’s easier to negotiate and collaborate on solutions that work for both sides. Keeping open minds and remaining flexible are essential achieving win-win outcomes.

Call to Action

The return to office debate is definitely a multifaceted issue, and career professionals play a crucial role in helping clients make informed decisions that best serve their interests, while allowing them to stay true to their values. Our guidance, advocacy for open communication, and support, can empower clients to navigate this transitional phase successfully. Have you supported a client through a return to office mandate? How did you go about it and what were the results? Thank you for sharing your experience!

Rita Kamel, CDP, MCCS, MCES, CRS, CIS, CWS is the 2023 recipient of Career Professionals of Canada’s top Award of Excellence, Outstanding Career Leader. She is a Master Certified Career and Employment Strategist, an award-winning résumé and interview strategist, and the founder of DossierPro. Her mission is to empower professionals to lead their international career moves. Rita holds a master’s degree in marketing and has extensive experience in recruitment. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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