Are return-to-office mandates working? Most companies don’t know how to measure it

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With 74% of U.S. companies transitioning to a permanent hybrid work model, employers are turning their attention to measuring the success of their return-to-office poliicies. And while there’s a single traditional office-centric model of work in the office, there are many ways to do hybrid work. What works well for one company’s culture and working style may not work well elsewhere, even within the same industry.

The first step involves establishing clear success metrics. Unfortunately, relatively few companies measure important aspects of the hybrid work transition. For example, a new report from Omdia finds that 54% of organizations find that productivity improved from adopting a more hybrid working style–but only 22% of organizations established metrics to quantify productivity improvements from hybrid work.

Based on my experience in helping 21 organizations transition to hybrid work, I found it’s important for the whole C-suite to be actively involved in formulating the metrics, and for the board to approve them. Too often, busy executives feel the natural inclination to throw it in HR’s lap and have them figure it out.

That’s a mistake. A transition to a permanent hybrid work model is a strategic decision about the company’s long-term future. It requires an accordant degree of attention and care at the highest levels of an organization. And while there’s plenty of external data on hybrid work preferences, each company has its own culture, systems, and processes.

Companies focus on a variety of success metrics, each of which may be more or less important.

Retention offers a clear-to-measure hard success metric that is both quantitative and objective.  A related metric, recruitment, is a softer metric: it’s harder to measure and more qualitative in nature.

External benchmarks definitely indicate offering more remote work facilitates both retention and recruitment. For instance, a survey of 1,000 HR leaders finds that 95% of respondents believe offering hybrid work to be important for recruitment, and 60% perceive hybrid work to boost retention. And in a report by Owl Labs that surveyed 2,300 full-time US workers, 52% indicated they would be willing to take a pay cut of 5% or more to be able to choose where they could work.

Thus, if the C-suite chooses to adopt a more flexible policy, I recommend my clients put it on their website “Join Us” page, as did one of my clients, the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute. HR will inevitably find they get an uptick in inquiries from job applicants referencing this policy, as well as potential hires showing enthusiasm for it in interviews. That enthusiasm is something that can be measured.

A key metric, performance, may be harder or easier to measure depending on the nature of the work. For instance, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Review reported on a randomized control trial comparing the performance of software engineers assigned to a hybrid schedule compared with an office-centric schedule. Engineers who worked in a hybrid model wrote 8% more code over a six-month period. Writing code is a standardized and objective measure of productivity and provides strong evidence of higher productivity with at least some remote work. If there is no option to have such clear performance measurement, use regular weekly assessments of performance from supervisors. However, tracking software should be avoided: The Owl Labs report found that it causes 45% of employees to feel stressed.

Collaboration and innovation are critical metrics for effective team performance–but measuring them isn’t easy. It relies on more qualitative assessments from team leaders and team members. However, by training teams in effective hybrid innovation and collaboration techniques, you can improve these metrics.

Several hard-to-measure metrics are similarly important for an organization’s culture and talent management: morale, engagement, well-being, happiness, burnout, intent to leave, relationships, and quiet quitting. For instance, the Owl Labs report indicates that 46% of employees would quiet quit if forced back to the office full-time, meaning doing the bare minimum needed to avoid getting fired.

Getting at these metrics requires the use of more qualitative and subjective approaches, such as customized surveys specifically adapted to hybrid and remote work policies. As part of the survey, it’s helpful to ask respondents to opt into participating in focus groups around these issues. Then, in the focus groups, you can dig deeper into the survey questions and understand people’s underlying feelings and motivations.

One way to measure well-being and burnout involves a hard metric: employees taking sick days. A seasonally adjusted measurement of sick days can help evaluate the impact of policies on employee mental and physical health.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are an often-overlooked but critically important area impacted by hybrid work. We know that underrepresented groups strongly prefer more remote work. Thus, my clients who chose to have a mostly office-centric schedule had to invest substantial resources into boosting their DEI to compensate for the inevitable loss of underrepresented talent.

Measuring DEI is quite easy and objective: look at the retention of underrepresented rank-and-file staff and leaders as the hybrid work strategy gets implemented. Also, make sure that your surveys allow staff to self-identify to relevant demographic categories so that you can measure DEI as it relates to engagement, morale, and so on.

Last, but far from least, my clients also consider professional and leadership development, as well as onboarding and integration of junior team members. A Conference Board survey finds 58% of employees would leave without adequate professional development, and that applies even more so to underrepresented groups. Leadership development is critical to the long-term continuity of any company. The onboarding and integration of junior staff is a fundamental prerequisite for success. Yet most companies struggle with figuring out how to do these well in a hybrid setting.

Measuring professional development is best done through subjective tools, such as surveys and focus groups. You can also assess how much staff improve in the areas where they received professional development and compare the effectiveness of in-person modalities of delivering learning with remote ones.

Once you have the baseline data from these various metrics, the C-suite needs to determine which ones matter the most to the organization. Choose the top three to five metrics–and weigh their importance relative to each other.

Using these metrics, the business can then decide on a course of action on hybrid work that would best optimize for their desired outcomes. By adopting this approach, my clients found they can most effectively reach the objective they set out for their permanent hybrid model.

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D., helps tech and finance industry executives drive collaboration, innovation, and retention in hybrid work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of 7 books, including Never Go With Your Gut and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State.

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