return to office

How is your Return to Office (RTO) going? We hear different responses to this question, and some of the answers are quite surprising. A few (too few) say things are going fine. Most say that there have been some bumps. I wasn’t quite prepared when one of the leaders I spoke to said, “People are acting like we’re insulting them by asking them to come into the office.  They knew we’d come back eventually. What gives?”

This is an easy question to answer and a complicated one to address. The simple answer is that if people have been successful working remotely, they have gotten a number of both expected and unexpected benefits. Returning to the way things were in the “before times” might make sense to from the organization’s perspective, but is a step back for the employee.

The upsides of working remotely

  Here’s a partial list of what people consider benefits of remote work:

  • Many people have saved a lot of money on commuting, childcare, and associated expenses. Even if their salary hasn’t changed appreciably they have been able to spend less on these items for over two years.
  • When COVID hit, people’s lives and routines were upended. Some people welcomed the changes, some resented them, but they had to upend a routine that for many spanned their entire careers. Change is never easy, and it took many people time to adjust. Now their routine is being changed again.
  • Some people actually moved to other locations. If the commute didn’t matter, they could live where they wanted. Sometimes it was for economic reasons, sometimes they went to take care of family. Now that commute may be uglier than it was before.
  • Working from home allowed many people to  work in a way that fit their lives better. They could work according to their body clocks (morning people had the ability to get a start on their day, night owls could work after dinner when the kids were down and still be productive.) Working in the office, or going back to office hours, will be disruptive to a lot of people.

But what about the team?

Notice that all of these are things that impact the workers. Leaders are feeling that many of the people on their teams are just ungrateful and selfish. Where’s the consideration for the organization? For the Team? For the good of civilization as we know it?

There are two major reasons for this disconnect.

First, there is the Endowment Effect. Put simply, people react more negatively when they feel something is being taken away than they do when things are given. Since so many people view the shift to even part-time remote work an asset, the idea that it will be taken away causes a knee-jerk negative response. If you’ve ever tried to institute a change at work, you’ve encountered this attitude: “Yeah, the way things work here sucks but don’t try to change it.”

More insidious, and the reason some people feel insulted, is that the original change (working remotely) wasn’t their idea. Their lives were tossed into chaos, many people had to reevaluate how they work and work really hard to be productive, but they managed to make it work. Despite the stress, people remained productive, loyal to the company, and sacrificed for the greater good. To their mind the company is saying, “Thanks for making that work at great personal expense when we needed you to, now get your tails back in the office or you’re fired.”

Making Return to Office a Win-Win

It’s not that going back into the office some or all of the time is the wrong answer. Leaders just haven’t necessarily framed the situation as a win-win.  Most of the discussion is how the company needs this, or the team will work better if they are together and working in the same space at the same time. Policy came down from HR or the C Suite and people are being told to get back to the office and their paycheck depends on it. That’s a great way to get compliance rather than buy-in from employees.

Organizations and teams that have been inclusive and consulted with their teams have encountered less resistance to coming into the office. Those that play the “we pay you now get in here” card are struggling to retain and attract good people.

How do people feel about your RTO efforts?

Are they resentful? Excited? Okay with it all? Understanding that their efforts have been appreciated, there are compelling reasons to change their work situation yet again, and there are (or could be) personal benefits to coming back into the office (at least occasionally) will go a long way to impacting how the change is received.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

The latest book from Wayne and Kevin shows leaders how to design a team culture that has a one-team mindset and gets great results under hybrid-work conditions. You can pre-order The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success now.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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