To return, or not to return — to be fair, that was never really the question for most organizational leaders. Not many were as bullish on the topic as Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who back in February characterized working from home as "an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible." But a shared sentiment was there, a persistent belief among executive leaders that organizational culture is best (and perhaps only) transmitted by way of an osmosis-through-proximity model. 

Lately, however, signs are emerging that this deeply entrenched belief might be due for a reckoning. How so? And what does it mean for executive leaders across the board — not just those in HR?

Let’s connect the dots between emerging employee preferences, the latest workforce trends and return-to-office policies to answer those questions and more. 

Office workers
Office workers

1. the latest (and worrying) trend in human capital 

Recently released data around human capital points to sweeping changes underway in the world of work that could have a major impact on employee retention, among other areas, for organizations across the board. Evidence for this phenomenon, which many have taken to calling “the great resignation,” comes from more than nine million employee records.

The situation is as follows:  

  • Resignation rates are peaking. True, resignation rates tend to climb during the summer months. But this year, the spike appears to be happening earlier and with far greater amplitude. What’s more, according to a study from, a full 95 percent of employees are currently considering changing jobs. Whether or not they act on that inclination remains to be seen, but your return-to-office policy will likely be a factor in determining that outcome. 
  • It isn’t just frontline workers — managers are resigning, too. Resignation rates for managers have skyrocketed during the next normal. While burnout, gender disparities in childcare obligation and stress related to working from home have all been cited as contributing factors, no one knows the true root cause with any reliable degree of certainty. Every workforce likely has its own unique dynamics at play. 
  • All industries are susceptible. Think the rising wave of resignations is impacting only a few sectors or industries — and yours might be immune? Think again. While resignations in tech climbed 4.5 percent between March 2020 and March 2021, the rates in other fields were trending similarly: Healthcare, for example, came in at 3.6 percent. In other words, all organizations should start planning for the possibility of what could be a mass exodus. 

So that’s where things stand right now. Will the so-called great resignation prove to be a permanent fixture of our next normal? Only time will tell. But in the interim, C-suite leaders will need to huddle up — and think critically about the ways in which return-to-office policies could be connected to this broader trend.  

2. return-to-office policies: industry-by-industry focus

Entering into what the Washington Post has adroitly called “the sort-of-maybe-hopefully-but-probably-not-ending stage of the pandemic,” how are different industries approaching the question of how best to return to physically collocated work environments?  

The tech giants are by and large taking a gradual approach. At Facebook, for example, employees will be allowed to continue working remotely up until one month after their offices reach 50 percent capacity, which should be the case for most employees as of September. Microsoft, having initially planned to fully reopen its offices in July, has more recently pushed the date back — again, to September.  

Many in finance, on the other hand, are marching to the beat of their own drums. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, for one, has effectively said that he doesn’t think remote work is a viable option for employees — at least not “for those who want to hustle.” Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, meanwhile, took a somewhat more moderate tone, stating that he would only be "very disappointed if people haven’t found their way into the office” by Labor Day. (Found their way? Are these people lost in the woods?)

What all companies have in common, however, regardless of industry, is the role that effective cross-functional collaboration between all leaders, from the C-suite on down, will play in driving successful outcomes. The need for such broad-based alignment becomes especially clear when you consider, for example, the following worst-case scenario: After your company decides on, say, a three-month ramp-up period culminating in everyone working onsite full time, several high-value contributors raise their hands and simply refuse to do so. They really want to continue delivering value, in other words, but they aren’t willing to do so on those terms. 

Well, what to do then? Simply give in and allow them to stay on and work remotely? Insist that they come into the office at least part time — say, two days per week? Tell them to comply — or else it’s goodbye? 

Obviously, making case-by-case calls (or, more accurately, “case-by-case exceptions”) seems like the logical move, but that could just as easily backfire as well. Some members of your workforce might read in it signs of favoritism, for example, and others could leverage such examples to make the case that they, too, deserve their own alternative schedules. 

There are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers here. But that’s all the more reason these scenarios are worth thinking through. In the results of a recently released internal employee survey from Apple, for example, 90 percent of respondents indicated that flexible work options — including the option to work from home — are important to them. Much more strikingly, over a third of Apple’s workforce (36.7%) said they worry they’ll be forced to resign due to the lack of flexible work options at the company. Given that Apple is asking staff to return to the office three days per week beginning in early September, and only allowing employees to work fully remotely for a maximum of two weeks each year, scenarios like the above are about to start playing out in real time. 

Executive leaders, and not just those from the world of HR, should pay close attention to how things unfold. 

asian female sitting smiling working on laptop
asian female sitting smiling working on laptop

3. how to find the best path forward

Clearly, executive leaders will need to work closely with their colleagues in HR to determine the right course of action. As we have seen, return-to-office policies represent a potential minefield right now, and decisions you make today could have long-term, potentially adverse repercussions in the realm of human capital. 

With all of that in mind, three practical suggestions for executive leaders to find the right approach:

  • Survey your workforce: Now is the time to take the pulse of everyone in the organization, which is why it’s a good idea to make this survey mandatory for all employees. Another tip: While standardizing the format for analysis, leave room for employees to provide written input and feedback as well. You might be surprised by what you hear. 
  • Consider a bespoke approach. While thinking holistically about your survey results, you’ll need to drill down, too. For example, are certain departments or functions particularly reluctant to return to the office full time? Consider tailoring your policy, if so. Simply put, the risks here could be severe — and in many cases, the best path will not be a completely blanket approach. 
  • Ensure that executives role-model your policy. Whatever strategy you decide on, executives need to practice it day in and day out. If you’re going back to the office full time, every single executive — across every department — needs to be present as well. Otherwise, you’ll have a firestorm on your hands: Exempt even one executive leader from the return-to-work policy governing your workforce at large and, perceiving hypocrisy, employees are sure to walk. 

Start with these three practices and you should be well positioned to weather this critical juncture in our dominant working arrangements. Plus, you should know that this is an area Tatum can contribute value as well. We’re working on the front lines with organizations across industries, consulting on evolving workplace challenges and connecting them with executives who can successfully navigate change. 

Ready to see how we can unlock value for your organization as well? Get in touch with the executive leadership experts at Tatum today. 

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