On-demand Webinar

So your RTO failed, now what?

May 3, 2024

Sam Raymond, VP of Sales, was recently joined by Corinne Murray, leading workplace strategist, as part of our webinar series where we discuss workplace challenges and the future of work with some of the sector's leading voices. This session focused on RTO policies and was inspired by Corinne’s recent work with Brian Elliot; ‘So your RTO failed, what now?’. 

We review the key highlights below but recommend watching the replay to gain the insights, recommendations and company examples first hand.

So your RTO failed, on-demand webinar replay button

Flaws of the current RTO approach

The return to office movement focuses on optimizing real estate rather than empowering teams. As highlighted by Corinne:

"Return to office solves a space problem or a real estate problem and not a work problem."

This real estate-centric approach overlooks the diverse needs of different teams and how work is actually getting done.

Imposing uniform return to office mandates is at odds with research showing the benefits of empowering managers to create customized “team agreements” as championed by Brian Elliott. Rather than a one-size-fits-all policy, companies should enable leaders to tailor agreements based on their teams' unique dynamics and preferences.

Leverage an activity-based working model

The activity-based working model is not new, originating in the 1980’s from American architect Robert Luchetti. However, it is now being reviewed with the lens of remote work by innovative organizations with distributed teams. In the webinar, Corinne highlighted the importance of recognizing that employees engage in four key types of work activities:

“individual focused tasks, asynchronous collaboration, synchronous collaboration, and socializing”

Rather than assigning employees a single desk, activity-based working provides a variety of environments suited for each work mode. For example, quiet zones for heads-down work, meeting rooms for collaboration, and casual spaces for social interactions. 

Implementing activity-based working can pose challenges, especially for large companies. As Corinne points out:

"When you're at a big company and everyone is doing those different things, at different times, it's hard to collaborate in the moment" 

RTO’s can focus on getting bodies in the room and forget that this time together might not be meaningful, as all the parties are focused on tasks. As Corinne said:

“The bodies are there, but the experience is on the screen”

Corinne has written about this in more detail in ‘The essential guide to activity based working’ and suggests that the workspace itself needs to be designed to facilitate chance encounters and spur-of-the-moment collaboration. This requires careful planning of adjacencies and traffic flows. At Desana we’ve also seen this demand for purposeful connection rise across companies and is one of the main reasons that we launched Events. Having team members in one space is not enough, the collaboration needs to be facilitated, and this is where TLA’s empowering managers and leaning into activity based working can help.

Treat employee experience as a product

To facilitate the shift to activity-based working, companies need to start treating the employee experience with the same care and attention as a product, with ongoing user feedback loops to understand and meet employee needs.

Corinne emphasized that this is a way to gather qualitative data that is personal, providing valuable insights into employee satisfaction and productivity. In her words, companies should be asking:

"Are they getting what they need to be successful? Are they getting what they need in order to be effective?"

By regularly soliciting feedback from employees and making improvements based on their input, organizations can ensure they are providing the right work environment and policies to help employees thrive. This level of focus on the employee experience creates a culture of continuous improvement and innovation when it comes to ways of working. 

During the webinar we asked attendees about their plan for their RTO policy over the next 12 months, with the option to select:

  • Double down - We want things to return to how they were
  • Change nothing - We will ride out the storm
  • Big bang - We will throw out the rulebook
  • Slow burn - We will evolve slowly

It was interesting to see that the attendees, for the majority, were following Corrine’s recommended approach, to gather feedback so employees don’t feel they are shouting into the void and iterate continuously. 

Data on the benefits of a flexible model 

The benefits of flexible and remote work models are not merely theoretical; they are supported by empirical data. A McKinsey report found a significant correlation between high-performing managers and the adoption of flexible and remote work models. Specifically, 63% of high-performing managers have embraced these models, compared to just 23% of underperforming managers. This suggests that providing flexibility and autonomy to managers is a key factor in achieving higher productivity levels. Nick Bloom’s research supports this also finding that:

“RTO mandates are more likely in firms with poor recent stock performance, and in those with powerful male CEOs.”

Impact on RTO adoption

The evidence is clear that return to office policies that don’t consider why in-person time is essential are out of step with the future of work. When the policies are behavior driven, as highlighted in Corrine’s RTO model, they provide more flexibility of team-level work activities and they are more positively perceived by employees. This makes them more operationally effective with a much improved employee perception. 

When the webinar audience was polled on their RTO reception it was interesting to see the correlation between the reasons for the policy and the adoption.

The main motivation, for our attendees, was to improve the culture and workplace experience by facilitating a positive office environment. It does suggest that when this is the motivation, and the organization adopts a slow burn approach to policy, that there is less resistance. While the sample size of the polls may be relatively small it echoes the findings from the research that Corinne and Brian conducted.

Commercial real estate, RTO and the how of work

The corporate real estate industry is going through a significant transformation and because of this is still acutely feeling growing pains. Organizations are still working out where ancillary providers fit into the distributed future of work. Because this is new, and challenging, there is a natural tendency to lean on old behaviors and metrics. Corrine suggests that an improved approach, as reflected in her framework, is to look at the root cause and make changes, rather than revert to the past.

There is the persistent problem of capital allocation for physical space over time, or the lack thereof. Most clients that engage with Desana are progressive with regards to their view of space. They understand that there is a physical component to what they're doing, for example in leased buildings, flex offices, on-demand offerings, and also a virtual component. But they are prepared to revisit the assumptions and the strategies that have been made in the past to move forwards with the how of work. 

Focus on the people and work perspective, not the space perspective

Corinne explained why RTO is broken:

“Because we've been leading with the place where we think work happens rather than what the work is and how it's best supported”

This shift requires a consistent reevaluation of work policies, a commitment to understanding the diverse needs of teams, and an openness to embracing new models of work that prioritize effectiveness and employee satisfaction over mere physical presence. The future of work is not tied to a specific place; it is defined by the ability to adapt, innovate, and respond to the changing dynamics of how work is done. Companies that recognize and act on this will be the ones that attract and retain top talent, foster innovation, and ultimately succeed in the competitive global marketplace.