Return to office policies: are they likely to work?

Can companies win back workers in a changed economy, or will forcing a return to the office backfire? We explore the policies that may ease the tensions.

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The war rages on between enterprises and your everyday employee who just wants to avoid the daily commute. Take a look at multinational accounting firm Ernst & Young Global Limited (EY) adding ‘Big Brother’ style UK office attendance monitoring through its turnstile data, and Deutsche Bank most recently joining the banks adamant about employees returning to their offices.

These new return-to-office (RTO) policies bring into question office culture and the implications of monitoring your employees’ every move, or trying to force participation. 

How ethical is it? Does it work? And what impact might it have on small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) who try to employ the same tactics? In this article we will be discussing just that.

Bad news for the big boys

94% of executives believe bad workplace culture hinders business success according to Deloitte. Former EY leader Dr. Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab agrees.

“Right now, through their attendance monitoring, EY is showcasing exactly why people don’t want to return to the office,” Khaddage Bou-Diab explains. “Monitoring turnstile data doesn’t create an environment employees would gravitate towards – and, because of it, these firms risk losing staff for good.”

Khaddage Bou-Diab, who has won 13 awards for leadership excellence since 2015, believes that the Big Four (the four largest professional services firms globally) are currently suffering from a cultural epidemic, as they resist nationwide shifts in working attitude and employees seek more meaningful work – things that became prevalent during and since COVID. “If they don’t work hard to create organisations people want to be a part of, they risk increasing their employee turnover.” 

In terms of an RTO policy, she stresses: “It’s not about beanbags and pot plants, it’s about making people feel recognised and noticed.”

SME RTO plans for 2024

Startups gathered exclusive insight from UK small businesses on the return to office debate, and their plans on navigating it this year.

14% of businesses surveyed are planning to increase the number of days that their staff can work remotely next year, making it the clear favourite over other flexible schedules.

Only 6% of companies surveyed said they planned to require staff to come into the office more days per week, suggesting that employers are waking up to the positive benefits that flexibility can bring to workplaces over rigid work schedules.

The general consensus

Research out of Stanford University suggests that attempts to bring people back to the office by force, particularly after the eye-opening aftermath of COVID, is likely to backfire.

The study, titled “Working From Home Does Not Decrease Productivity,” involved a two-year experiment which found that:

✅ Productivity increased by 13% in the remote work group compared to the in-office group.

✅ Employee turnover rate decreased by 50% in the remote work group.

✅ Employees reported higher job satisfaction and well-being in the remote work group.

These findings challenge the traditional assumption that in-office work is essential for productivity. 

Rigid policies have also been found to cause:

  • Decreased employee satisfaction and retention: as the study suggests, forcing employees back to the office full-time or denying flexible working requests could lead to demotivation, dissatisfaction, and ultimately, higher turnover rates. This can be detrimental to companies, as replacing lost employees is costly, and time-consuming.
  • Decrease in talent retention: in a competitive talent market, offering flexibility can be an advantage in attracting and retaining high-performing individuals who value autonomy and work-life balance. Rigid policies may push talented individuals towards companies offering more flexible work options.
  • Reduced productivity: contrary to expectations, the Stanford study found increased productivity in the remote work group. Enforcing a full-time return might disrupt established workflows and negatively impact productivity, especially for tasks best suited for a remote setting.
  • Employee wellbeing concerns: disregarding employee preferences and concerns about childcare, commute costs, and work-life balance can lead to increased stress, burnout, and potential health issues, which in turn can negatively impact organisational culture and increase costly employee sick leave.

Finding the happy medium: 5 tips for a delightful return-to-work policy

 A successful RTO policy is possible if the right balance between company and employee needs is struck.

1. Embrace flexibility and choice

Offer a hybrid model as the default, allowing employees to choose between in-office, remote, or a combination of both work arrangements based on their roles and responsibilities.

Research from Oxford urges employers to take note that these “deeper organisational changes” (as opposed to relaxation classes and apps) empowers employees to optimise their work-life balance, ultimately contributing to their wellbeing and happiness, factors highly valued by today’s workforce.

2. Focus on productivity and outcomes, not just location

Instead of focusing solely on physical presence in the office, shift the focus to measuring productivity and outcomes. This empowers employees to work from whichever location allows them to be most effective.

Implement results-oriented management practices, evaluating employees based on their achievements rather than just their hours worked in the office. This fosters a culture of trust and accountability, according to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management.

3. Invest in collaborative technology and training

Invest in the technology and tools necessary for effective collaboration, regardless of location. This could include video conferencing platforms and communication software like Whatsapp or Slack.

Training and development: provide training on how to use technology effectively for remote collaboration and communication. This ensures seamless communication and avoids potential communication breakdowns. A study by PwC found that investing in employee training can lead to increased productivity and improved employee engagement

4. Prioritise employee health and wellbeing

Demonstrate genuine care for employee wellbeing by providing access to resources like healthcare and generous PTO, which foster trust, increase autonomy and employee confidence, and strengthens the employer-employee relationship.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution and not everyone will be happy all the time, however, by following these tips and adapting them to your specific company culture and workforce needs you can create an RTO policy that balances the interests of all stakeholders, leading to a better work environment for everyone.


Enforcing strict back to the office boundaries can backfire. Once employee dissatisfaction sparks, and talent starts to leave, it may be hard to stop that ball rolling.  You can lose your best people and struggle to entice replacements.

The most important thing to consider when creating your RTO policy is prioritising your employee’s wellbeing. The stats are telling:  93% of workers consider their wellbeing to be as equally critical as their salary, and 87% percent of employees would consider resigning from an organisation that does not emphasise the wellbeing of its workers, according to a report by Gympass.

Your RTO policy may very well be the most crucial component to your company’s success in 2024.

Written by:
Stephanie Lennox is the resident funding & finance expert at Startups: A successful startup founder in her own right, 2x bestselling author and business strategist, she covers everything from business grants and loans to venture capital and angel investing. With over 14 years of hands-on experience in the startup industry, Stephanie is passionate about how business owners can not only survive but thrive in the face of turbulent financial times and economic crises. With a background in media, publishing, finance and sales psychology, and an education at Oxford University, Stephanie has been featured on all things 'entrepreneur' in such prominent media outlets as The Bookseller, The Guardian, TimeOut, The Southbank Centre and ITV News, as well as several other national publications.

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