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Do Return-to-Office Mandates Actually Rebuild Social Connection?

June 6, 2024
4 min read
HubStar VP of Growth
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Return to office mandates are making the news. 

And although nothing makes employees irate quite like a mandate, the magic of in-person connection is most often cited by leadership as the reason they’re issued. A whopping 90% of businesses plan to implement some type of return to office mandate by the end of this year. 

But do return-to-office mandates actually rebuild social connection in the workplace? 

Reimaging the Hybrid Workplace for Social Connection, Performance and Growth

So far, the evidence points to no. But why? 

Let’s get into it. 

What is a return to office mandate? 

Return-to-office mandates are a policy that make it mandatory for employees to spend a given amount of time in the office. 

Typically, this tends to be on a per week basis, anywhere from three days to the full five, which an increasing number of companies are opting for. 

Consequences for failing to comply with return-to-office mandates range from none to more punitive measures like not being considered for promotions and even termination. 

Social connection as justification for return-to-office mandates 

Better connection and collaboration are most often cited as the reasons why mandatory in-office time is needed. 

Let’s look at some recent examples. 

Boeing mandated commercial employees back into the office five days per week in December 2023. According to a Boeing spokesperson,  “It’s beneficial to have teams in the office more often to support our customer commitments and collaborate in person, including sharing best practices and responding promptly to emergent needs. Often, there’s no substitute for face-to-face collaboration and communication.” 

In March, UPS mandated thousands of employees to return to the office five days per week, an increase from three days per week last year. “The UPS culture and our success has long been based on our in-person connections with our customers and the partnership forged from personal relationships cultivated day in and day out at work,” a UPS spokesperson commented. 

Starting in the Fall, public servants for the Canadian federal government will be mandated to return to the office at least three days per week. “We recognize the benefit of hybrid work and hear the preferences of employees to maintain some flexibility. We also believe in the value of human interaction in the workplace at many levels,” said a spokesperson. 

So the real question here is – does physical presence create social connection and better collaboration? 

Why don’t return-to-office mandates rebuild social connection? 

There’s a set of criteria that create the ideal conditions for social connection in the workplace. In other words, employees have to be in the right mindset to want to connect with colleagues and make friends at work. Forced office attendance is actually damaging to this mindset. 

There’s three things a workplace needs to facilitate social connection – autonomy, trust and the right mix of people. Return-to-office mandates are damaging to all three of these. 

Here’s why. 

1) Return-to-office mandates damage autonomy

“Fundamental to autonomy is an employee’s need to have choices and be in control of what they are doing,” a PwC report states. “Companies’ failure to provide this may result in workers’ ‘learned helplessness’, a state in which employees stop taking the initiative in the belief that they do not really have control over their circumstances.” 

To kick off a social connection, someone has to take the initiative. Providing autonomy over work location and then taking it away can create feelings of powerlessness and resentment that create a state of disconnectedness. 

By slapping on a heavy-handed mandate, employers are signalling to employees that a value previously shared by everyone – autonomy – is no longer shared by leadership. The office becomes the physical manifestation of that value clash. People who come in because they have no choice aren’t going to be chomping at the bit to build relationships or collaborate with colleagues. 

2) Return-to-office mandates erode trust 

Social connection in the workplace requires trust – between colleagues, between managers and employees, and between the collective employee base and leadership. Trust creates the psychological safety necessary for connection to happen, particularly when it comes to sharing new ideas and working as a team. 

Mandates erode the trust employees have in leadership to look out for their best interest. Employees have repeatedly insisted that what works best is a choice of where they work, and 58% claim that being forced back into the office would negatively impact their mental health.  

In an organization where trust between employees and leadership is broken, hoarding rather than sharing knowledge is the safest option. Not exactly ideal conditions for a connected or collaborative workplace. 

3) Return-to-office mandates increase turnover 

Return-to-office mandates have prompted protest letters, strikes and resignations. 

People need to feel familiar with their colleagues before they take the initiative to socialize. So if workplace churn is high and the office roster of familiar faces is constantly changing, people are bound to keep to themselves. 

A recent study found that 42% of organizations who implemented return-to-office mandates saw increased turnover afterwards, with 29% now struggling to recruit. 

What’s more, flexibility is an important value for top-performers, diverse talent and those with family commitments. Strict mandates are likely to result in a mass exodus of these groups, damaging business results, diversity and inclusion.

So if return-to-office mandates don’t rebuild social connection in the workplace, what does?

Grab your spot at our upcoming webinar on Wednesday June 12th at 11 AM EST/ 4 PM BST to find out!

Reimaging the Hybrid Workplace for Social Connection, Performance and Growth
HubStar
Author

HubStar

HubStar is a next-gen hybrid workplace platform that helps workplace innovators create a productive, connected workplace. Bring teams together in the right place at the right time while optimizing the spaces, facilities and policies they need to collaborate, do their best work and thrive.

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