You cannot return to the office without defeating these four major battles

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As a growing number of companies require employees to return to the office for 3 to 5 days a week this fall, they are running into the buzzsaw of what one of my clients called the “Four Horsemen of the Required Return to Office” challenges: resistance, exhaustion, quietly quit and diversity.

The four horsemen come from the fact that workers who are able to work remotely prefer to do so most or all of the time. For example, an August 2022 Gallup survey of remote workers shows that 34% of respondents want to work full-time remotely, 60% want to work a flexible hybrid schedule, and only 6% want to work in a traditional office-centric setting. A June 2022 McKinsey survey of all workers, remote and not, provides further context on preferences for hybrid work. It found that 32% of respondents want to work remotely full-time, 10% want to work remotely four days a week, 16% three days a week, 18% two days a week, 13% one day a week and 13% prefer full-time work on the office. Thus, more than half of all respondents want to work less than half of the time in the office. And a September 2022 survey by the School of Politics and Economics at King’s College reported that 25% of respondents would quit if forced to return to the office full-time.

Related: Want your co-workers back in the office? Here’s how to make it a place they want to be.

No wonder workers facing mandates to return to the office are showing resistance, the first of the four horsemen. For example, management at Apple required employees to come to the office three days a week. While Apple employees aren’t known for causing trouble, in this case 1,000 employees signed a petition calling for more flexibility. GM announced in a message on Friday 23. September that all white-collar workers must return to the office three days a week. The announcement sparked intense employee backlash, leading GM to backtrack on the demands and delay any possible return to office until next year.

In a September 2022 survey, Gartner found that only 3% of companies would fire employees who don’t comply, and only 30% would have HR talk with those who don’t show up. No wonder major US banks trying to force employees back into the office face high attrition rates of up to 50%. And many other employees show up for part of the working day, from 22-14. Labor Day back-to-the-office mandates resulted in a spike in office occupancy in early September, reaching 47.5% during the week ending Sept. 14 in 10 major cities tracked by Kastle Systems, a security access card provider. However, office occupancy fell to 47.3% by the end of the week ending September 21 and to 47.2% the following week.

Given this resistance, some workers simply quit, joining the Great Resignation, making the exhaustion of the second of the Four Horsemen. That includes top executives: Ian Goodfellow, who led machine learning at Apple, quit in protest over Apple’s mandate to return to the office to three days a week. It also includes many rank-and-file employees, with publications containing the stories of employees who quit rather than return to the office for 3 to 5 days a week. Or consider an article from the National Bureau of Economic Research about a study on Trip.com, one of the largest travel agencies in the world. It randomly assigned some engineers, marketing workers and finance workers to work some of their time remotely and others in the same roles to work full-time in the office. Those working on a hybrid plan had 35% better retention.

Even finance, the industry leading the charge to return to the office, suffered significant declines. European banks, which offer more flexible hybrid employment policies, use these to hire skilled employees from the less flexible American banks. Smaller and more flexible financial planning firms are hunting for financial planners in larger and less flexible companies. Even bankers at the top banks, such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, are quitting because of demands to return to the office.

Perhaps even more dangerous than resistance and exhaustion is the third of the four horsemen, stand still. This term refers to employees who psychologically disengage from work and do just enough to get by without getting into trouble. Quitting can be worse than the much more obvious resistance or attrition since quitting rots a company’s culture from within.

Related: Quietly quitting divides the workforce. This is how you get everyone back together.

A September 2022 survey by Gallup found that such quiet quitters make up about half of the American workforce. Forcing employees to come to the office under the threat of discipline leads to discord, fear and distrust, according to Ben Wigert, director of workplace leadership research and strategy at Gallup. In fact, Gallup found that if people are required to come to the office for more time than they prefer, “employees experience significantly lower engagement, significantly lower well-being, significantly higher intention to leave [and] significantly higher levels of burnout.” In contrast, employees feel grateful to companies that give them more flexibility and show trust: as one such employee said, “if my company is going to come in and give me this flexibility, then I’m going to be the first to give them 100%.”

In fact, even before the pandemic, research from Stanford University found that workers who spent 4 days a week telecommuting were 9% more engaged than in-office workers. Gallup finds that “the optimal increase in engagement occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time—or three to four days in a five-day work week—working off-site.” A June 2022 Citrix survey shows that 56% of fully remote employees feel engaged, but only 51% of in-office employees do. The evidence is supported by a June 2022 CNBC survey, which found that 52% of fully remote workers say they are very satisfied with their jobs, compared to 47% of full-time office workers. No wonder that mandates that force employees to come to the office result in quiet quitting.

Related: Is remote work responsible for silent shutdown? This behavioral economist reveals what he tells his clients — and how they can fix it.

The finale of the four horsemen is linked to the serious loss of diversity associated with the imposed office’s return. A Future Forum survey found that 21% of all white knowledge workers wanted to return to full-time office work, but only 3% of all black knowledge workers wanted the same. That’s a huge difference. Another Future Forum survey found that 38% of black men wanted a fully flexible schedule, but only 26% of white men felt the same. The Society for Human Resource Management found that half of all black office workers wanted to work from home permanently, while only 39% of white workers did.

Why do we see this difference? That’s because black professionals still suffer from discrimination and microaggressions in the office, and are less vulnerable to harassment in remote work. Similar findings apply to other underrepresented groups.

Evidence shows that underrepresented groups are leaving employers that mandate return to the office and fleeing to more flexible companies. For example, Meta Platforms offers permanent work options with full remote control. In doing so, Meta found, according to Sandra Altiné, Meta’s VP of Workforce Diversity and Inclusion, that “embracing remote work and being distributed first has allowed Meta to become a more diverse company.” For example, in 2019, Meta committed to a five-year goal of doubling the number of black and Hispanic workers in the United States and the number of women in the global workforce. Thanks to external work, Meta’s 2022 diversity report shows that it achieved and even exceeded its five-year diversity goals for 2019 two years ahead of original plans.

While Meta’s diversity goals benefit from telecommuting, other companies that offer less flexibility have DEI employees sounding alarm bells about how the desire to telecommute among underrepresented groups threatens diversity goals. After all, the workers going to Meta come from somewhere, right? Underrepresented groups are joining the great resignation in greater numbers in the context of the imposed civil service returns.

In working with my clients who want to bring their employees back to the office to kill the four horsemen, I find a combination of strategies is essential. Before we launch an office return, we consider compensation policies. A June 2022 survey from the Society for Human Resources reports that 48% of respondents will “definitely” look for a full-time work-from-home job in their next search. To get them to stay in a full-time job with a 30 minute commute, they would need a 20% pay rise. For a hybrid job with the same commute, they need a 10% pay rise. A September 2022 survey by Goodhire found that 73% of workers believe companies should pay in-office employees more than remote workers. In fact, research from Owl Labs suggests that it costs an average of $863 per month for the average office worker to commute to work versus staying at home, which is about $432 per month for utilities, office supplies, and so on.

This data helped my clients develop a fair compensation plan that gave employees a higher salary if they spent more time in the office. Doing so helped address the first two riders, resistance and exhaustion. Some of my clients even used this policy as a simple but effective incentive to push the majority of their employees to return to the office in a way that minimized resistance and attrition, while significantly saving the payroll for the small minority who chose to work remotely.

Dealing with silent quitting required a variety of techniques. One involved working to improve culture and belonging, for example retreats with fun team building exercises. Another is centered on helping employees deal with burnout, such as by providing mental health benefits. Finally, it helps if employees feel that you care about their professional development: upskilling pays off.

To prevent the loss of diversity, as well as make it easier for underrepresented groups to be promoted, it is valuable to create a formal mentoring program with a particular focus on underprivileged employees. This means giving minority employees two mentors, one from the same minority group and one representing the majority population. This gives minority mentees a diverse network of connections and experiences to draw on among both minority and majority employees. It gives mentees the implicit knowledge and relationships they need to advance, while the fact that each mentee has two mentors eases the burden on each mentor and makes the workload manageable.

So if you’re committed to returning to a mostly or entirely personal workforce, remember to beware of—and defeat—the Four Horsemen. Plan ahead and figure out how to overcome these issues before they threaten the success of your return-to-the-office plan.

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