RTO Conversations Must Go Beyond Answering, “How Many Days in the Office?”

Let’s face it; most companies are struggling with their Return to Office (RTO) strategies, not because of their complexity but because they lack additional complexity.

This may sound counterintuitive – but the truth is that the pandemic widened the ecosystem where people get their work done.

Previously, individuals typically worked in an office environment, and as a result, many companies provided each employee with their own designated desk. However, due to the pandemic, people have had to adapt and create new workspaces at home or change their habits to make working on the go easier. We are now working in an era where video conferencing is the norm, there are many new digital collaboration tools available, and teams have started to find more ways to work asynchronously, allowing for greater flexibility even across time zones.

Yet most executives and leaders have decided to bring individuals back to the office, as they believe working from home limits, for example, productivity, community, and innovation.

Meanwhile, employees have pushed back, citing hours lost in commutes, pick-up times from childcare, and the desire for greater flexibility overall – specifically for better mental health and well-being.

And on top of that, the real estate team has been asked to dramatically reduce the operational costs and the footprint of the office space that the company once occupied pre-pandemic, but no one has truly figured out whether or not the remaining office space will accommodate everyone productively if they showed up as often as leadership would like them to.

What has resulted is a growing tension between the leadership, who want individuals in the workplace, and their employees, who are finding it harder than ever to get actual work done in the office.

The biggest problem with the return-to-office conversation is that it usually stops at how many days we require people to be in the office and never truly answers the question:

What is the office for?

If it truly is for productivity, how are you measuring productivity, and how is the office designed in a way to support people being more productive in the office than they could be working anywhere else?

Right now, for instance, many employees are being told to go back to the office only to spend most of their day sitting in a less-than-ideal open office environment to take video calls from their desks. Whereas if they were working from home, they now have ideal set-ups in quiet spaces where they can be less distracted during the calls.

If it truly is for building culture and community, how are you measuring an increase in the community, and how is the office and its programming designed in a way to support people building community better in the office than they could be working anywhere else?

Right now, for instance, with inconsistent schedules, it’s harder than ever to run into individuals on the team, let alone cross-functional teams, unless everyone makes a concerted effort to be in the office on the same day, at the same time, and (depending on the size of the office), in the exact location.

If it truly is for innovation, how are you measuring innovation, and how is the office designed and programmed in a way to support people being more innovative in the office than they could be working anywhere else?

Right now, for instance, large conference rooms are harder than ever to come by and historically have never been purposefully designed to be conducive to group work.

Ultimately, the RTO conversations must go beyond answering, “How many and which days of the week are you required to come in?”

Days in the office should look and be treated differently than days out of the office, and environments must better support what the days in the office are intended to drive.

If you are struggling with your return-to-office strategy, it is because you have not considered the entire workplace ecosystem, the new tools (which you are probably already paying for), and the desires of your employees. Nor have you designed the space as well as created the necessary operations, processes, and policies to support your answer to the question:

What is the office for?

Learn more about our Author: Evelyn Lee, FAIA, is the first-ever Global Head of Workplace Strategy and Innovation at Slack Technologies, Founder of the Practice of Architecture, and CoHost of the Podcast, Practice Disrupted. Lee integrates her business and architecture background with a qualitative and quantitative focus to build better experiences for the organization’s employees, clients, and guests.
She is widely published, wrote a monthly column for Contract magazine for over three years, frequently contributed to Architect Magazine, and is working with Architizer awards, including the 2016 40 Under 40 award for Building Design + Construction and the 2014 AIA National Young Architects Award. She recently served as the first-ever female Treasurer to the AIA National Board in 2020-2021 and was recently elected to serve as the 101st President of AIA National in 2025.

*Disclaimer: This post was not generated by A.I. It is indeed written by a real life human. A pretty cool human in fact.