The State of RTO: What Workers Want

The State of RTO: What Workers Want
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Companies’ return to the office or “RTO” has become a hot-button issue that has gripped headlines for weeks. Fortune has called the tension between RTO and WFH (work from home) a “war.” Yet with hybrid work emerging as a dominant work model moving forward, most companies have initiated RTOs.

We wanted to better understand this divisive company event and, more broadly, the state of RTO right now. As part of broader research on hybrid and remote work, we partnered with Future of Work expert, Rebecca Hinds, to conduct a survey to gauge people’s emotions and sentiments around RTO. While the results revealed a hodgepodge of opinions and preferences regarding RTO across the 250 respondents, several key themes emerged. If businesses want to get their RTO “right”—regardless of what that looks like—they’ll need to pay heed to these key trends.

RTO is an attractive opportunity for workers to strengthen their relationships with their coworkers.

While many headlines have painted a grim picture of RTO, our survey revealed that the return to the office has several redeeming qualities for workers. By a landslide, the number one reason that people want to return to the office is to strengthen their relationships with coworkers. For many, the office has become a social space—a key location to build relationships, personally and professionally.

But whereas senior executives (Directors, VPs, and C-level executives) looked forward to returning to the office to strengthen their relationships with their coworkers, this excitement wasn’t shared nearly as strongly by individual contributors or managers.

Other compelling reasons motivating workers to return to the office include attending brainstorming sessions and participating in watercooler moments. Despite companies doubling down on catering and gourmet food in the office, having access to free or subsidized food was the least compelling motivator for workers to venture back to the office.

Unproductive meetings and workplace gossip are fueling resistance toward RTO.

Although our respondents viewed RTO as attractive for strengthening relationships with their coworkers, they viewed it as unattractive for several reasons. Topping the list of detractors was the commute—and the associated traffic and parking woes (89% of respondents).

But there were also some unexpected RTO backbiters, namely unproductive meetings and workplace gossip, which both earned a position in the top five list. Respondents said that unproductive meetings and workplace gossip were contributing to their RTO resistance more so than the lack of COVID precautions, lack of control over their physical space, and poor work setup in the office.

Past research gives insight into why meetings and workplace gossip are so vexing for employees. Meetings are consistent time sinks, with one study finding that 70% of meetings keep employees from doing productive work. Yet presumably, meetings are equally bad regardless of whether they happen at home or in the office during RTO. Perhaps participants view in-person meetings as particularly vexing because it’s more difficult for them to tune out or multitask. Or, perhaps in-office meetings are worse than their virtual counterparts because more unproductive chatter happens when people meet in person.  

What about workplace gossip? Why might it be putting a damper on a company’s RTO plans? In a world where humans gossip a staggering 52 minutes a day, this unproductive chatter can quickly add up. If workers are constrained to the physical office, they may be involuntarily subjected to this chatter and struggle to tune it out.

A mix of emotions

We also wanted to understand what emotions people are feeling in response to RTO. Our study revealed that workers have a mix of emotions. The strongest emotion associated with RTO was frustration—more respondents said they strongly agreed that they felt frustrated than any other emotion. We can chalk this up to many different factors. Workers could feel frustrated if their company is “gambling” with its RTO mandate. Or they may feel frustrated if their company isn’t enforcing its RTO mandate. If you see your colleagues held to different standards than you, this can easily fuel frustration.

Yet while frustration was the most strongly-felt emotion, the next five most strongly-felt emotions had a positive valence—confident, satisfied, hopeful, energetic, and creative. Understandably, workers are conflicted in terms of their feelings around RTO. Rife with whiteboards, water coolers, and serendipitous meetups, the office can fuel creativity and overall satisfaction.

Looking forward

Regardless of what your company’s RTO looks like—or whether you even have one—it’s important to recognize that there will almost certainly be “winners” and “losers.” Companies that get this moment “right” will listen to their employees, adopt a data-driven approach, and embrace the inevitable bumpiness of the road back to the office—or not.