Posted: 11 Oct. 2022 10 min. read

The missing ingredient in the return to office debate

Workforce experience is the key to regular in-person interactions

Authored by Anne-Claire Roesch, Steve Hatfield and Jonathan Pearce

Debates over return to office (RTO) mandates, the hybrid work model, the Great Resignation, or the potential for a recession to shift the balance of power back to employers are missing the point.

A workforce with a meaningful connection to the purpose of their work will be happier, more engaged and contribute more to the bottom line than those who are forced to return to the office based on a corporate mandate.  75% of Gen Z and Millennials in our recent Global Survey seek a hybrid work model because they do not want to lose the flexibility gained during the pandemic.  They desire to be in the office when it makes sense – to collaborate with teammates when it matters1. Leaders who are intentional about creating the right experiences based on the work itself will perform better in the war for talent and unlock more value for their organization.

The worker-employer relationship has shifted from old assumptions like "staff are more productive in the office" and "workers should leave their worries at home" to a new vision where nurturing a productive relationship with workers is vital for an organization to thrive and navigate disruption.

What's caused this?

The COVID pandemic blurred the lines between home and work, as people experienced an alternative work-life balance first-hand.

The pandemic gave us a platform to think differently and consider how we:

  • consider the “whole person” at work
  • enable greater flexibility and autonomy across workforces
  • create more purposeful work and meaningful careers

As the world returns to pre-COVID activity levels – dining out at restaurants and resuming business and leisure travel – offices have not seen the same rebound in activity2. Hybrid work models that combine remote and in-person work are the expectation, not the exception.

Leaders are too focused on face time instead of cultivating individual and team potential

Leaders remain distracted by the ongoing tug-of-war between companies and the workforce on return to office. In many cases, the places and spaces to which workers have been mandated to return have not caught up with the realities of hybrid, video-enabled work, nor do they foster the types of spontaneous collisions and interactions that a workforce might seek out by returning to an office outside the solitary experience of at-home work.

Further, as the threat of a recession looms, the dialogue is shifting to a “swing back” effect – namely, that the “power” will shift back to companies as exit opportunities potentially become scarce and performance and profitability per worker gain increased scrutiny.

Despite the uncertainty that surrounds the emergence of new COVID variants and the stability of global markets, the hybrid model is here to stay. Leaders need to shift their thinking to creating the contexts where a workforce with higher expectations of their work-life experience can successfully navigate life and work together.

Understanding how workers and employers engage is fundamental to harnessing the workforce's potential and thriving in uncertain futures3.

It is not something leaders can ignore.

Studies across 31 global markets at the beginning of 2021 suggested that more than 40% of workers were considering leaving their jobs4. More broadly, a LinkedIn survey of approximately 9,000 workers found that 58% of Europeans say they're considering changing jobs in 20225.

Yes, flexible work models help, but they only go so far if workers don’t have something to look forward to. Further, these “moments that matter” look different depending on the nature of a person’s work, their personal circumstance, and their career goals. A recent Microsoft study indicated that 73% of people want flexible remote options to stay, while 67% of people want more in-person work or collaboration post-pandemic4.

As we conclude in the paper, From Great Resignation to Great Reimagination, leaders should capitalize on this opportunity to make changes to the workforce and workplace:
"The organizations that capitalize on this time to reimagine the workforce, the workplace, and work will deliver better business outcomes in the long run6."

Whether your organization is fully remote, fully in-office, or operating in a hybrid arrangement, there are three areas leaders should focus on to foster stronger overall engagement at both the individual and team levels.

1. Make the connection between work and purpose for employees
Workers with an understanding of the purpose and meaning of their work will feel more connected to their employer, more fulfilled by their work, and more naturally disposed to sharing the best of themselves and their abilities. Take the time to help workers see beyond the immediate day-to-day value that they bring and instead tie it to broader company mission, vision, and strategy.

  • Sixty five percent of employees agree or strongly agree that the pandemic has made them rethink the place that work should have in their life7
  • Nearly two in five (37% of Gen Zs and 36% of millennials) say they have rejected a job and/ or assignment based on their personal ethics8

2. Reorient career advancement
Workers want visibility and an understanding and affirmation of how they're doing. Companies embracing a hybrid model with less in-person face time will need to ensure more frequent check-ins and work harder to avoid biases, for example, where workers are promoted because they are in the office more frequently.

  • Ninty four percent of women believe that requesting flexible working will affect their likelihood of promotion9
  • Just 31% of workers born after 1989 — Gen Z and younger millennials — say they're "engaged" at work10

3. Evolve ways of working to embed well-being
Monitoring the productivity of knowledge workers is a path to a fractured employee/employer relationship. Instead, the focus should be on performance – whether at the level of team or human performance – and yes, analysis of passive data can support these queries. Are our ways of working amplifying positive team dynamics or are they a hindrance? Ways of working need to shift to empower teams and the workforce not only to maximize potential and outcomes, but to nurture the employee-employer relationship.

  • Roughly a third of Gen Zs and millennials say they are not comfortable speaking openly with their managers about stress or other mental health challenges8
  • Only 36% of hybrid workers say their employer has set clear expectations around where and how they’re expected to work9

As organizations make changes to address the workforce experience, they should avoid moving too quickly. First, explore the root causes behind workers' expressed feelings and needs and promote an equitable environment by ensuring diverse voices aren't drowned out. There are clear business benefits to building high-trust, inclusive cultures– do not underestimate the value of signaling to your workforce that you’re listening – whether through manager conversations or other company-wide listening events. Second, share back what you’ve heard and what you’re doing to address feedback. Many organizations have taken a “test and learn” approach to new ways of working, implementing practices and then adjusting as they go. Finally, strive to make every employee feel supported and safe, embracing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) practices and existing trainings at your organization that encourage all employees to show up at work without fear of being their true selves at work.




1Deloitte Global, “Striving for Balance, Advocating for Change.” The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z & Millennial Survey, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/
2Peck, Emily. “Apple's Remote Work Struggles Suggest There's No Going Back on Working from Home.” Axios, 23 Aug. 2022,
3Report: “The worker-employer relationship disrupted”
4Microsoft, “The next great disruption is hybrid work—are we ready?,” The 2021 Work Trend Index, March 22, 2021
5Julia Horowitz, “The Great Resignation is taking root around the world,” CNN Business, March 30, 2022
7Gartner HR Research, Gartner March 23, 2022
8Deloitte Global, “A call for accountability and action: The Deloitte Global Millenial and Gen Z Survey 2021,” Deloitte Insights, April 30, 2022
9Deloitte Women at Work Study 2022
10Harter, Jim. “U.S. Employee Engagement Slump Continues.”, Gallup, 12 Sept. 2022,

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