Leadership   //   October 26, 2023

RTO disagreements continue to slam the C-suite

The push to return to offices is stirring up drama at many organizations, particularly in the C-suite where decisions and plans around hybrid work are actually getting made.

Over 70% of HR leaders said RTO mandate strategies are driving conflict among leaders, a Gartner poll including 170 HR respondents conducted last month found. 

Those at the top are arguing over issues like whether their current arrangements are working, and other shifting details around hybrid work policies. Ultimately though they’re still clashing over their varying personal beliefs around how work gets done best. 

“A lot of leaders have very deep-seated beliefs about the way work should get done that can come from many years of experience and how they have seen success operate in the work environment, and it’s just really hard to shift those mindsets,” said Caitlin Duffy, HR research director at Gartner.

“I think this is one area where often, it may not necessarily be a data-driven perspective that comes into play, it could be an emotional one,” she said.

Generational differences within leadership teams are one key reason they aren’t seeing eye to eye. 

“They don't get remote because that's not where they came from."
Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health, University of Manchester.

Leaders in older generations are more likely to believe work gets done in offices and in person — like it has through the majority of their own decades-long careers — said Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at the University of Manchester in the U.K. “They don’t get remote because that’s not where they came from,” Cooper said. 

On the other hand, young leaders typically have a better grasp of technology and an understanding of the demands on working families, and how flexible working promotes better work-life balance. 

Personality differences are another factor driving disagreements. Some leaders adopt a more command and control management style, while others are more open, transformational and in tune with employees’ needs, he said. The former tend to be those in older generations while the latter tend to be younger, he said.

And much of the responsibility for effectively rolling out the new arrangements is falling on middle managers, rather than on those making the decisions.

In the Gartner survey, more than 80% of respondents said managers at their organizations are tasked with executing RTO rollouts, and more than 60% said the mandate has resulted in conflict on their team.

To better approach and resolve these disputes, leadership teams need to lean on HR to better understand what employees are really saying and feeling, experts say. 

“The fact is that companies figure out how to work through strategic challenges all the time, and so this should be seen as no different."
Cameron Yarbrough, cofounder and CEO of people development platform Torch.

Those in HR director or chief people officer roles need to highlight employee perspectives and say “listen, this is what the next generation wants, we surveyed them, we’ve talked to them, and this is what they want,” Cooper said.

Cameron Yarbrough, cofounder and CEO of people development platform Torch, stresses that leadership teams needn’t shy away from the issue of internal disagreement. That’s because figuring out what in-office and remote blend works best for any given company, has become a vital part of business strategy. “It is a polarizing issue, but there are challenging and polarizing issues that every single company faces on a regular basis,” he added.