CEOs are using return-to-office to fight an ‘erosion’ of culture—but it’s a ‘recipe for resentment’ if done wrong, warns workplace strategist

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CEOs are increasingly issuing return-to-office mandates. They may well have legitimate reasons to require workers to return to their desks—and see it backfire anyway. 

After prolonged remote work, “people are realizing that there’s been this slow erosion of the culture of their organization,” author and workplace strategist Erica Keswin said on Bloomberg’s The Tape podcast on Friday. “A CEO said to me this week, ‘The party’s over. We are bringing our people back.’” 

Venture capitalist Paul Graham recently tweeted that founders he’s spoken with have changed their minds about remote work and are trying to get staff back to the office. “Why were all these smart people fooled?” he wrote. “Partly I think because remote work does work initially, if you start with a system already healthy from in-person work.” 

But Keswin warned against bringing employees back in an ineffective or possibly damaging way. 

“I talk a lot about designing a day in the office that’s worth the commute,” she said. “What we don’t want is people coming in and no one from their team is there, and they’re on Zoom all day and they’re not seeing anybody. That creates what I call the recipe for resentment. They are mad.”

Yet it can happen all too easily, especially if CEOs say employees must return two or three days but don’t specify which ones.

“What happens is people come in and you’re missing each other, there’s no energy,” Keswin said. “And so you’re not really getting the bang for the buck of bringing people in.”

That might also make it more likely that employees simply ignore a return-to-office mandate. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz betrayed an annoyance earlier this year that workers had ignored an earlier request to come back to the office one or two days a week. 

And some employees will simply not want to return to the office, period. Amazon recently saw an employee walkout over its return-to-office mandate, and workers at Google let their displeasure be known last week, as well. That’s all the more reason to get a mandate right.

Keswin said she’s seeing a “big shift” among CEOs, who are now saying, “Let’s do two days, three days, whatever it is, but these are the days, because what you want to do is create connection and energy.” 

She suggests leaders “design days in the office or even moments that matter for people, where they feel connection.” They might be centered around strategy meetings, learning and development (perhaps a lunch with a guest speaker), volunteer work for the community, or one-on-ones with managers. It depends on the company.

But whatever it is, says Keswin, “let’s think about the why. When we do come together, what are we going to be doing? And why is it better for us to do these five things in person?”

It needs to be intentional, Keswin says, because, “left to our own devices, we’re not connecting.” 

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