With an increasing number of organizations calling workers back to the office post-pandemic, a number of high-profile employers have made headlines for how they’re enforcing the new rules. Google, for instance, is linking return-to-office attendance to performance reviews, while such law firms as Davis Polk & Wardwell and Sidley Austin are tying bonuses to RTO attendance. Still others, including investment giant Vanguard Group, are willing to fire employees over RTO compliance.

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However, experts say, as employers become stricter on enforcing return-to-office attendance policies, they may actually end up with fewer employees in the office—because of soaring quit rates in reaction to the policy. This makes it imperative for HR leaders to thoroughly consider the potential impact of the different types of enforcement strategies, using data-driven insights and weighing how the strategy aligns to company culture and goals.

Crunching the numbers

To truly gauge the impact of an RTO enforcement policy, HR leaders need to go beyond tracking office attendance on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis. They also need to capture before and after attrition rates for comparable periods. Those metrics together can better show whether the organization is bringing more employees into the office or if it’s actually losing headcount, says Brian Westfall, principal HR analyst for Gartner’s software and services marketplace company Capterra.

For example, take an employer that had 70% of its 1,000 employees adhering to its RTO policy before it implemented an enforcement plan. After launching the plan, attendance went up to 80%. That’s a gain of 10 percentage points, or 100 more employees coming into the office.

But if the employer’s attrition rate was 5% before the RTO enforcement plan launch and jumped to 20% after, that’s a loss of 150 employees.

So, 50 fewer employees are coming into the office.

“That’s the kind of math that employers have to do right now,” Westfall tells HRE. “It’s like, ‘I can increase my office attendance by this much, but I might lose way more employees because they’re going to find more flexible arrangements elsewhere.’ ”

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Considerations before enforcing a return-to-office policy

In a survey by Capterra of more than 500 managers about their RTO attendance policy, 69% of survey participants say they either plan to or are already becoming more strict on RTO attendance enforcement.

Employers are largely turning to enforcement measures because enticements like free food, free yoga classes or other in-office activities are failing to attract employees back into the office. Additionally, looming economic uncertainty is giving employers more confidence to try RTO enforcement policies, with the belief their employees will stay put—though Westfall says that assumption may be misplaced.

Employers should keep possible retention issues in mind as they formulate an enforcement strategy.

Google is among the latest to tie RTO attendance to performance reviews. However, Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School specializing in the future of work and changing geography of work, tells HRE that employers should be mindful that this hardline approach could impact morale and productivity—in addition to creating retention and recruiting challenges.

Similar issues can arise with enforcement policies that dock pay and perks based on employees’ adherence to RTO policies, Westfall says, noting this approach also raises questions about equity and legality. Other employers are factoring RTO attendance into bonus decisions, which Westfall says can be the best route to take. 

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The most extreme action is firing employees for noncompliance with an RTO policy. If employers clearly outline steps that can result in termination for failing to comply with RTO attendance policies, Westfall says, it is fair game to fire an employee since they would have had several warning notices.

About one in four managers (27%) say they fired at least one employee in 2022 for poor office attendance, according to Capterra’s survey.

3 alternatives to return-to-office enforcement

Despite employers’ growing interest in these options, both Westfall and Choudhury say organizations can try other means to bring employees back to the office.

One approach is to truly understand why workers do not want to come into the office and what would be the best motivators to draw them in. For example, collaborating, receiving mentoring, onboarding and training are activities that employees often find are better done in person than remotely, Choudhury says. 

Another draw is off-site meetings in interesting locations, Choudhury says. He adds it’s old school to think that all work gatherings need to take place at company headquarters.

Lastly, it’s important for executives to set an example and come into the office with comparable frequency as the workforce, Westfall says. Capterra found that, while 35% of non-executives were coming into the office every workday, only 19% of executives were doing the same.

In sizing up the overall landscape of return-to-office enforcement, Westfall says “companies are at a point right now where they’re saying, ‘We’ll put our enforcement policy in place and see where the chips fall.’ I think they’ll recognize some consequences to that, but we’re reaching a point where we’re just looking for equilibrium.”

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