All Articles Leadership Productivity Are companies overvaluing RTO? Rethinking productivity in a hybrid work world

Are companies overvaluing RTO? Rethinking productivity in a hybrid work world

Many companies are making RTO mandatory, but Prakash Panjwani believes collaboration and productivity can thrive in a hybrid work environment.

5 min read



(Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

In 2020, the global pandemic forced most companies – including ours – to become remote-first virtually overnight. Today, according to a survey from ResumeBuilder, 90% of companies led by some of the most prominent names in business will require employees to regularly spend time in the office by the end of this year. In fact, more than a quarter have made in-office attendance a requirement for employees to keep their jobs. We aren’t one of them. 

Return to office (RTO) advocates often cite the importance of face-to-face interaction for culture, collaboration, productivity and, ultimately, innovation and profit. But a recent University of Pittsburgh study of S&P 500 firms found that RTO mandates are often driven more by the need for managers to exert control than building culture, and ultimately have little impact on firm performance. Meanwhile, a Gartner survey found that many employees are unhappy about rigid RTO mandates– especially high performers, who are 16% more likely to leave. How does driving away your best employees benefit either company culture or the bottom line? 

Unlike some of my fellow CEOs, however, the benefits of remote and hybrid work make us a stronger company. We give employees the flexibility to work from home or the office, except when they’re needed for in-person meetings (or for specific jobs or in countries where employees can’t work remotely). We believe that if we trust our employees with the flexibility to choose, they’ll reward us with their best work. And they have.  

Here’s what our real-world experience embracing hybrid work has shown me and why other companies should consider it. 

A key to culture is connection and belonging 

For a global company, the idea that regional RTO will positively impact culture reflects a narrow perspective. I’ve never felt more connected to our global employee base since we fully embraced the hybrid model – a sentiment that’s echoed throughout our organization. From my vantage point, being a hybrid organization is an advantage, not an obstacle, to building a culture that enables us to grow, innovate, and meet the needs of our customers.  

Because we’re more connected than ever, there has been a significant impact on one of the core values that defines our culture — the idea of belonging. We define this as recognizing the diverse experiences and cultures of every individual empowering all employees to bring their authentic selves to work.   

The reality is that people are more than their work. They have families, interests, and challenges – physical and otherwise. Whether it’s a parent with a sick child or a person with a health issue, the flexibility of the hybrid model allows our employees to be present in both their lives and at work and ultimately, we hope, to reach their potential. And those small moments when we get to glimpse the personal lives of our fellow employees during virtual meetings help us to create connections and build stronger relationships with each other. 

Collaboration is more than “serendipity” 

Among many business leaders, there is an assumed linear relationship between innovation, collaboration and in-person interaction. Some companies and leaders pushing RTO talk about the “serendipity” of face-to-face interaction that can only be achieved when employees are together physically. 

Of course, serendipity can be valuable, but it’s not enough. The fact is that regardless of whether a company is entirely in-person, virtual or hybrid, collaboration is complex.  It requires shared purpose and intentionality. Research from Gartner shows that teams that collaborate intentionally are three times as likely to see a high degree of innovation.   

A global company should have a global perspective on collaboration. In our case, the hybrid model has had a real impact on how our remote and local teams interact. Prior to the pandemic, remote teams were often the only people to join meetings virtually. It took more work for them to participate and contribute. But by normalizing virtual meetings, we’ve become better at being inclusive, enabling everyone’s opinions and perspectives to be heard. In other words, we’re collaborating better.  

Impact on productivity 

There needs to be a more universal agreement about how to define productivity. My formula is the output of a certain quality that the organization accepts, divided by a reasonable time (which implies cost) over which that output is delivered. We can measure whether two team members doing the same job for the same amount of time are delivering value (say, lines of code or sales quota achieved) at an acceptable level.  

The proper management challenge, however, is distinguishing between actual performance and productivity. In a hybrid model, you need a strong culture of accountability. Self-motivated individuals are more likely to use the benefits of hybrid work (like the time saved by no longer having to commute) to deliver even better results. Others may struggle with motivation and distraction in a hybrid model. However, forcing RTO as an excuse to elevate performance is unfair to those whose productivity is actually higher than before in the hybrid environment. Instead, managers need to get creative in the way they manage the employees who are underperforming in a hybrid model. 

I’m firmly convinced that hybrid work is a suitable model for us, and other companies should broadly consider it. The motivations for RTO, while often couched as beneficial to the goals of the enterprise, are too frequently the product of assumptions rather than data, as that University of Pittsburgh study cited above found. Trust your employees, empower them with choice, and they will deliver for you. 

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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