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Opinion: As pandemic concerns cool, return-to-office policies heat up

Eyes & Ears

Posted online

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many things, and two of them are big workforce issues packed into small acronyms.

The immediate community shutdowns and public health precautions introduced many of us to WFH, aka work from home, and now, in the fourth year of pandemic waves, we have RTO – return to office.

Work from home became a necessity for many. Office environments have been shaped to emphasize flexibility, benefits and culture with current and prospective staff members in mind. But as pandemic concerns have cooled, return-to-office policies have become hot button.

Here’s a temperature reading of the U.S. office worker from a February survey by

  • 62% of workers are required to go into the office five days a week.
  • 37% of workers would prefer to work less frequently from the office.
  • 29% of workers who want to WFH more will quit this year if the RTO policy doesn’t change.
  • 22% say they would take a salary cut to WFH more.

The company’s sampling was from 1,000 employees in full-time jobs that require them to work at least one day a week in an office.

Those last two stats – on quitting and salaries – should be on the radar of employers. It means 3 in 10 employees surveyed could be leaving their employers this year based on the RTO policy. Says to me employees know what they want, and they’ll take strong actions to get it. But also, it’s a vote of confidence that another employer will meet those needs and desires. In fact, WFH is becoming more valuable than salary. In addition to those who would trade pay for WFH options, 34% say they would take a lower raise in exchange for working from home more days.

But the underlying takeaway – and the survey summary headline – is “4 in 10 workers forced to RTO are unhappy.”

An unhappy worker, in many cases, is an unproductive worker. Employers know that.

Case in point is at The Walt Disney Co. The RTO topic bubbled up this year when Disney CEO Bob Iger issued a memo for staff to work on-site at least four days a week, citing staff creativity, culture and professional development. Employees responded by over 2,000 signing a petition for Iger to reconsider his RTO policy, according to media reports. Amazon is amid a similar push-and-pull RTO situation.

Disney’s four-days-a-week idea brings up another hot topic: a four-day workweek that 61 U.K. companies tested for six months and recently reported as a success, according to The Wall Street Journal. With that in mind, Springfield Business Journal asked readers if they supported a four-day workweek and 76% of the 779 people who voted online said yes.

In the WFH/RTO debate, there’s opportunity for employers and employees to meet in the middle. Maybe more WFH staff is not ideal for a business. But it could benefit the company financially to loosen up that RTO policy.

I expect the topic to be a central theme this year in employer-employee relations – and one through which local companies can learn from the steps and missteps taken by national companies.

Springfield Business Journal Editorial Vice President Eric Olson can be reached at


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