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What Stops Employees from Following Return to Office Mandates?

employees collaborating and meeting
Katie Cavanaugh
Published on

Restaurants are packed, music venues are filled with concert-goers, and public transportation systems are carrying commuters from point A to point B. So why aren't offices also filled to the brim? What's stopping people from coming back to the office?  

Despite organizations like Boeing, UPS, and IBM implementing strict "return to office or else" policies in the past year, surveys show employees still enjoy the flexibility of working from home. With trends like quiet quitting and remote employees protesting new in-office measures, it's more important than ever to understand what truly engages people with the office. That way, more companies can lead with the "why" of going back to office instead of just dishing out mandates.

Recognizing what blocks employees from returning and building bridges to overcome those blockers will be key as we keep moving forward with new ways of working.

The State of Return to Office Mandates

Robin recently ran a research report on what drives or detracts employees from spending time in the office. A key piece of what's pulling employees into the office is RTO mandates, with nearly 70% of survey takers reporting that their company has a mandate in place.  

In fact, 45% of those people with a mandate reported being expected to be in the office 4 days a week. Yet, only 24% report being in the office 4-5 days a week.

This means that even though there are mandates in place, they aren't necessarily sticking.

Let's consider what that means in a real-world situation from Vox. Mathew, who works at a large payroll business in New Jersey says his company is requiring employees to come in three days a week, though most people are only showing up for two. “If I go into the office and there are people but none of them are on my team, I don’t gain anything besides a commute. Instead of sitting at my desk, I’m sitting at a desk in Roseland."

While the popularity of hybrid work is soaring, there's clearly a disconnect between what employers and employees are looking for in a return-to-office strategy. What's getting in the way?

The Four Main Reasons Employees Aren't Going Back to the Office

Various factors prevent employees from coming into the office. These are the four main red flags keeping people from following return-to-work mandates.

1. Commuting

The time, energy, cost, and stress that comes before an employee even steps into the office is the main piece of friction keeping employees away. When asked what blocked them from coming into the office many responses were associated with commuting.

Whether the journey was too long (41% of respondents), gas prices were too high (32%), parking was too expensive (20%) or dealing with inclement weather wasn't worth the stress (23%), commuting was the top culprit pushing employees to work remotely.  

2. Lost productivity in the office 

Next on the list: lost productivity. People learned how to be effective working from home and the return to office shined a light on some of the inefficiencies baked into the office experience.

Whether it's trying to find the right desk with the right equipment or having to wander around the office searching for a free meeting room, respondents regularly noted that these time-sucks make the office less appealing. In fact, 76% of employees say they would be more productive in the office if they had all the equipment they needed set up on their desk when they arrived.

3. Unenjoyable office environment 

Productivity isn't everything. But pair an unproductive office with an unenjoyable one and you have a recipe for low office attendance. Offices used to be beacons of perks, free food, the chance to socialize and more.

Now, since introducing more mandates, employees note a few frustrations that make the space less enjoyable. While noise will always be one of the reasons people may not want to work in the office, another reason is not being able to see their coworkers and friends. 31% of respondents want to know when their colleagues are going in to work so they can avoid ending up in an empty office, but coordinating that overlap has proved challenging for organizations.

4. Childcare and pet costs 

Finally, the pandemic highlighted the struggles of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Unsurprisingly, childcare costs and having to leave pets at home were top variables keeping employees from coming into the office. Interestingly, however, both of these concerns were some of the least cited barriers, despite 71% of respondents having children and 79% having pets at home.

The time and cost of commuting is the #1 detractor keeping employees out of the office. (source:

How to Create a Return to the Office Mandate That Works

The best RTO mandates don't lead with a stick, they lead with carrots. We'll never be able to recreate the office culture we had before the pandemic, but we can create plans that remove the friction remote workers face coming into the office AND make it feel more special than an average work-from-home day.  


The office needs to offer employees something they can't just get at home. When asked what would make people want to follow office mandates, the #1 incentive was office perks like catered lunch or on-site services. Whether it's food or fun, the office should feel like more than four walls and a desk, it needs to be a special experience.

Subsidized costs

With commuting, childcare, and pet costs all reaching the top of the detractor list keeping many employees away from the office, it's no surprise employees are looking for support from their employer to help them get into the office. Employees don't want to feel like they have to pay to come into the office. Offsetting even some of the costs of working in person will go a long way.

Clarity around who is in the office when 

Once employees are in the office, it's not just perks that will make them want to stay, it's the people. When respondents knew their manager or senior leaders would be around, 35% would be motivated to head into the office. Another 31% would want to come in if they knew their colleagues would be there. Whether it's a daily roster or a clear hybrid schedule, having a workplace system in place so people can coordinate when to come in to work is crucial.  

Let's Get Back to Work: Tips for Boosting Office Attendance

Forcing employees back in hopes of boosting office occupancy is never going to work. You'll end up with unsatisfied leadership, disgruntled employees and a struggling company culture. When it comes to return to office mandate and a workplace strategy, these tips will help create an atmosphere where people want to come back in.

Subsidize costs and provide perks

This goes without saying. Whether it's a public transportation pass, gas money, or childcare, coming into the office costs employees money. Having lunch delivered to the office so people have one less thing to plan, pack, and carry with them to the office could be the difference between coming in to work or not. Find what costs and perks matter to your employees and plan for them in your next budgeting cycle.

Connection points

One of the main reasons people come into the office is to see their colleagues and one of the main reasons they don't come in is because they don't end up seeing them. Facilitating connection points in an office strategy is two-fold.

When employees are planning their hybrid work schedule, they should know in advance who else will be in the office through a workplace management system. Then, once they're in-office, there should be spaces for all the different types of connections employees should share (meeting rooms for structured meetings, soft seating for casual catch-ups, etc). Collaboration is a critical component of employee job satisfaction, so employers should make collaborating with others as simple and stress-free as possible.

Ever-evolving office strategy

Perks, people, productivity. While productivity is more difficult to define, it's a crucial reason why some people prefer remote work. If employees think they can be more productive outside of the office, there's little point in coming in. Having a workplace strategy that covers equipment, efficient desk booking, seamless meeting room booking, and intuitive wayfinding will create an office space people not only want to be in but can do their best work in too.

Returning to the Office: Going Beyond Mandates

Everyone from the chief executive to your most junior employee can benefit from working in the office. Most companies just need to do a better job of explaining the "why" behind in-person time. There will always be employees working remotely, which is the nature of a hybrid job.

When people do come into the office, it's the job of leaders and workplace managers to mentor relationships, support productive collaboration and foster a sense of culture. Want to learn more about the drivers, detractors and in-office days? Check out the full report.

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Return to Office Report 2024