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Employees Are Quitting Over Return-to-Office Mandates — And It’s Hurting the Diversity Pipeline

Employees Are Quitting Over Return-to-Office Mandates — And It’s Hurting the Diversity Pipeline
Photo Credit: Stocksy; Frey Gordillo
By Courtney Connley

From Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg to David Soloman and Jamie Dimon, business leaders across industries have sent a clear message to employees over the last few months: Get back to the office, or else. In fact, after months of employee pushback, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told employees this summer that “it’s probably not going to work out” for anyone at the company who refuses to abide by their return-to-office requirements. And recently, Amazon updated its policy to give managers the green light to fire any employee who refuses to come in the office at least three days a week.

While many leaders are linking their return-to-office calls to a desire for increased collaboration and productivity, data shows that requiring employees to get back to the office can backfire, especially with diverse talent. A recent survey by FlexJobs found that 56% of professionals know someone who has quit their job or plans to quit due to return-to-office mandates, with 63% of professionals saying they are even willing to take a pay cut to work remotely.

For many women, particularly those with intersecting identities, working remotely is about more than just flexibility. When women work remotely, they experience fewer microaggressions and they have higher levels of psychological safety, which increases work productivity and focus, according to Lean In and McKinsey & Company’s 2023 Women in the Workplace report.

For women with caregiving responsibilities, workplace flexibility also has a huge impact on their ability to even remain in the labor force. Data from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution shows that a growing number of mothers with children under the age of five are participating in the workforce today, with work-from-home policies making it easier for them to take and keep a job. But, as more companies attach ultimatums to their return-to-office mandates, the post-pandemic progress we’ve seen around women’s workforce participation could easily be reversed.

We talked to Chief Member Stacey Payne, Chief People Officer at Daily Harvest, and Jill Penrose, Chief People and Administrative Officer at The J.M. Smucker Co., about the hybrid models they’ve implemented at their own companies and their best tips for other leaders looking to take an inclusive and productive approach to where employees work.

Gather Employee Input

Before implementing a potentially unpopular policy, Penrose recommends asking employees about their needs. Her company conducted individual interviews before mapping out its return-to-office plan.

“We asked them what was on their mind, what they were excited about, and what they were worried about in terms of a transition back to whatever the new normal is. We were really influenced by the stories people told us about working as much or more than they ever had, but appreciating the flexibility to get kids off the school bus or to stay with their dad who otherwise wouldn’t be able to live alone.”

Using the insight gathered, Penrose and her team established a concept called “core weeks” where one week out of the month, or for some teams every other week during the month, employees would come in the office for a few days, or sometimes even just one day depending on team needs.

Tailor Requirements for Every Role

At Daily Harvest, Payne says their return-to-office policy differs based on job function and teams, with the majority of their engineering and customer experience team members working remotely, and members on their food experience team working in-person to collaboratively develop meals and write about the food they serve. For employees who need to be in-office to effectively do their job, or who live near Daily Harvest’s New York City headquarters, Payne says they are encouraged to come in the office three days a week but it is not a mandate.

Create Opportunities for Collaboration

To ensure that collaboration and networking still happens for remote and in-office employees, Payne says the company hosts a virtual “Day in the Life” series where every month a different part of the business is spotlighted and members on that team give presentations on who they are, what they’re working on, and what big projects they have.

Similarly, Penrose says J.M. Smucker hosts town halls, live music events, and other cultural events in the office to bring people together. “The idea is if I’m coming to the office, and a lot of other people are at the office at the same time, then I can interact with my team and I can interact cross functionally.”

Know Your “Why” — and Communicate It

Penrose says she and her team have been transparent about their core weeks model evolving over time to better fit changing employee and business needs, but so far, reception to the concept has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Our employees recognize that we’ve given this a lot of thought and no model is perfect,” she says. “I think that’s a challenge that many companies have who put a model in place with no ‘why’ behind it. For us, we’re trying to accomplish a few things, including in-person business delivery, developing our talent, building our culture, and we’re trying to allow flexibility.”

Communicating the “why” behind any workplace change or mandate, Penrose says, is critical for maintaining company culture and buy-in. But, even with a “why” in place, she says it’s also important for employers to be open to changing employee needs.

Remain Flexible to Shifting Employee Requests

“There are different times in people’s lives where they might need a different kind of schedule,” Penrose says. “And we need to respect that and understand why they need to have that.”

For Payne, having her daughter at 16 years old taught her early on how different seasons in an employee’s life may call for different levels of flexibility. That experience is a big reason why Daily Harvest opted for a flexible approach that ensures employees who are able to do their job from home can continue to do so.

Similarly, Penrose says employees should expect to be flexible to their employer’s needs, since it can also be beneficial for their professional growth.“I think it’s not reasonable to think I’m never going to come in,” she says. “To get talent development you need to build relationships that help you establish a network. So this needs to be a partnership. It’s about the employee being committed, as well as the company creating the [supportive] environment.”