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The elimination of choice: Are back-to-office mandates inevitable?

By Kace O'Neill | |7 minute read
The Elimination Of Choice Are Back To Office Mandates Inevitable

Employees are standing their ground against back-to-office mandates, and a significant portion are planning to leave their employers if they are implemented.

According to a Gartner survey, one in three executives presented with a return-to-office (RTO) obligation or mandate reported that they would leave their employer. It was also revealed that 19 per cent of non-executives said they would leave their organisation due to an RTO mandate.

Legally, employers have the right to request (or mandate) an RTO if the workplace is safe and complies with all public health guidelines and if the employee has no reasonable justification to continue working from home. The overall failure to comply with the directives from the employer can result in breach of employment contract and lead to fair dismissal.


In the court of worker opinion, however, implementing mandates for RTO is a deplorable action that would lead to many employees walking themselves out, instead of letting their employer dismiss them.

“While 58 per cent of executives with a mandate to return to the office said their organisation provided a convincing reason for the decision, many senior leaders are unwilling to come back into the office,” Caroline Ogawa, director in the Gartner HR practice, said.

“An April 2024 Gartner survey of 60 HR leaders revealed 64 per cent say senior leaders are concerned onsite requirements will increase attrition.”

Other insights from the Gartner survey found that organisations are, in fact, increasing onsite requirements:

  • Sixty-three per cent of respondents reported an increased expectation around employees spending days in the office.
  • In total, 34 per cent said a mandate had already been implemented.
  • Thirteen per cent said the consequences for employees not meeting onsite requirements have intensified.

The debate around the RTO has been well published, with some corporate heavy-weights joining the discussion to ostracise employees who weren’t willing to come back into the office, especially by way of a company-wide mandate.

Elon Musk was one of those corporate entities who took aim at employees, labelling them as “morally wrong” for hesitating about an RTO.

“There are some exceptions, but I kind of think the whole notion of work-from-home is a bit like the fake Marie Antoinette quote, ‘Let them eat cake,’” he said. “You’re going to make people who make your food that gets delivered [that] can’t work from home; the people that come fix your house, they can’t work from home, but you can?”

“Does that seem morally right? That’s messed up.”

Being lectured on morality by Musk is one thing entirely, but the stance itself has driven a wedge between employees and employers in a dramatic fashion. The implications that this divisive workplace subject can have on an organisation’s talent attraction and retention are crippling.

The Gartner survey found that 36 per cent of senior-level jobseekers who have faced a return mandate at their current employer said that factor influenced their decision to leave their organisation. One-third said they had discontinued a hiring process in the last year due to expectations that employees would return to a physical workspace.

Caitlin Duffy, senior director in the Gartner HR practice, said: “Retaining key talent has become harder due to mistrust between employees and employers, employee burnout and disengagement, and fiercer competition in the labour market.

“With RTO mandates influencing the job-seeking and loyalty of senior-level candidates and employees, organisations that force workers to come into the office are likely to weaken their leadership bench and complicate succession planning.”

Organisations are going to have to face the music and brace for the possible consequences that arise from implementing these divisive mandates. Acknowledging that the very premise of back-to-office mandates can create a dumpster fire for both employees and employers is the first step towards rekindling that relationship and reintegrating that workplace culture that is crucial to business outcomes.

Gartner has offered differing options to the mandate route that could foster that workplace culture that organisations yearn for, without deliberately angering their employees to the point where they want to desert the company.

  1. Motivate rather than mandate employees back to the office by making them feel capable, autonomous, and connected via their office space and hybrid policy.
  2. Consider focusing employees’ onsite attendance around specific regular activities (e.g., brainstorming) and occasional events (e.g., offsites).
  3. Enable employees to shape their RTO requirements; employees who feel that their needs are considered exhibit higher engagement and work performance.
  4. Provide a clear reason behind requirements for working onsite; employees who understand why their employer wants them to come into the office show greater engagement, discretionary effort and retention.



An employee is a person who has signed a contract with a company to provide services in exchange for pay or benefits. Employees vary from other employees like contractors in that their employer has the legal authority to set their working conditions, hours, and working practises.

Hybrid working

In a hybrid work environment, individuals are allowed to work from a different location occasionally but are still required to come into the office at least once a week. With the phrase "hybrid workplace," which denotes an office that may accommodate interactions between in-person and remote workers, "hybrid work" can also refer to a physical location.

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill is a Graduate Journalist for HR Leader. Kace studied Media Communications and Maori studies at the University of Otago, he has a passion for sports and storytelling.