A return-to-office mandate can be disruptive, especially for working women, but an enhanced culture can help employees adjust.
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Authors: Jennifer du Toit Anita Verheul


A return-to-office (RTO) mandate may have unintended consequences for retention. Minimizing its impact on employees — especially on working women — is a top priority,

It's been four years since the unsettling first days of the pandemic, and the COVID-19 public health emergency officially ended over a year ago. Time may give the impression that personal and professional lives are back to normal, but in reality, society and workplaces are still finding their footing.

After a deeply disruptive period, one indicator of the continuing need for recalibration is differing perspectives employers and their employees hold about returning to the office. Organizations are eager to recoup the cultural and productivity benefits associated with having a full staff onsite. But among the workforce, particularly working women, a widespread preference for remote options can make an RTO mandate unappealing.

The shift toward at-home work has been most pronounced among women. In 2022, 41% of female employees spent time working at home compared to 28% of male employees.1 Remote policies have an added appeal for women who value flexibility, and the enforcement of an RTO mandate raises specific concerns about honoring the needs of those who are caregivers to children or aging parents. Some women, especially mothers, could have no choice but to leave the workforce.

In 2022, 41% of female employees worked at home compared to 28% of male employees.

Letting go of pre-pandemic norms

Longing for the good old days is human nature, even if they occurred only four years ago. But the pitfall of looking backward to reclaim the past is a tendency to overemphasize the positives and deemphasize the negatives.

If employers set out to recreate the workforce of 2019 with an RTO mandate, they risk defaulting to outdated standards and assumptions that no longer resonate with employees. To promote a strong culture, team bonds and productivity, RTO mandates should be handled strategically, especially when there's a large contingent of women at work.

If employers set out to recreate the workforce of 2019 with an RTO mandate, they risk defaulting to outdated standards and assumptions that no longer resonate with employees.

A starting point is to reexamine what defines a thriving workplace and workforce in 2024. Figuring out which strategies can best achieve their objectives, by reframing RTO mandates as experimental tools, gives employers a clean slate. Remembering that some employees were required to work outside of the office before the pandemic may also help put things in perspective.

Assumptions about working from home, such as the effectiveness of remote work, need to be evaluated and should be addressed to avoid reinforcing any stereotypes. For women who prefer a home office, dispelling any notions about reduced productivity can be important to helping them secure pay increases and bonuses.

Employers need to be fully versed on remote work challenges and have a defined business case for an onsite requirement, so they can make constructive decisions about RTO mandates. Remote work policies and practices are an important topic right now that's actively studied, and staying current on findings may help guide better decisions.

Investment in team building

Investing in office culture and team building is always important, but it's crucial for companies as they reconsider their supporting policies and practices. Meaningful opportunities to engage and connect help employees feel more committed to their jobs, their colleagues and the organization.

If most employees who are eligible for remote work strongly prefer it, empowering them to connect and support each other is a strategic imperative, wherever they're located. Managers are a lynchpin of success because they set the tone by modeling productive behaviors. Checking in with direct reports regularly, encouraging catch-up calls and email exchanges among colleagues, and promoting other ways of engaging are pivotal. Encouraging these practices also sends a valuable message. People learn that building rapport is an important part of the employee experience.

Appealing to the better nature of leaders

It's important to keep in mind that returning to the office requires giving up conveniences and efficiencies, which may be highly valuable to employees. But employers can prepare them for a smoother transition by openly acknowledging the potential difficulties they face in returning to the office. Accenting what employees gain from making this change, whether their schedule is full time or hybrid, recognizes and respects the potential challenges of adapting.

One concern about fully remote work is that connecting and mentoring have become more difficult, especially in the absence of a culture that prioritizes and facilitates building bonds. Solutions do exist, though, such as encouraging more established employees to mentor younger workers. These mentors also receive guidance, emphasizing the value of personal as well as organizational growth provided by the process.

Women at work often have a strong interest in mentorship for the career value this experience can provide. Studies have found that successful mentoring increases retention rates for female employees, assists them in obtaining promotions, boosts their self-confidence and work engagement, and minimizes feelings of isolation.2 However, employers should be cautious about positioning mentoring as an activity that's restricted to the organization's office environment.

The opportunity for women leaders who work onsite to help prepare the next generation for expanded roles is a persuasive argument for an RTO mandate. And some see it as a responsibility. Structured mentoring promotes consistency, but effective mentoring sessions can be virtual — requiring minimal logistics and offering broadly expanded access for participants. This alternative approach strengthens culture by reinforcing employee collaboration and team building on a larger scale. Interconnecting people in this way, for this purpose, also creates cohesion.

Encourage grassroots cultural contributions

Strategic design for a modern workforce and culture should leave room for improvisation. New and different ways of communicating and collaborating, aligned with changing employee preferences, now require a more fluid approach. By encouraging grassroots contributions to find better ways of working and improve cultural experiences, organizations can bridge the gap between employee and employer preferences.

Empowering grassroots developments also helps employers avoid a potential downside to their collaboration efforts. Connectedness and collaboration are generally considered positive and productive pursuits — but only within certain limits. Over-engineering the pursuit of these goals may actually overwhelm employees, particularly the many working women who are balancing personal obligations. An excess of connectedness can actually lead to burnout, resentment and a reluctance to comply with an RTO mandate.

Grassroots contributions avoid potential complications. They discourage employers from pushing employees beyond productive boundaries, and instead foster an environment that promotes work-life integration and wellbeing.

Crafting better policies by listening to employees

Employee engagement is the most important people metric for determining an organization's future business success.3 As employers build their work culture in 2024 and beyond, listening more closely to the workforce and making refinements based on feedback is imperative. Pulse surveys can be an excellent method for measuring engagement in between more comprehensive data collection efforts, offering insights into current trends.

25% rank employee engagement as the most important people metric for determining an organization's future success.

Data should be segmented by gender, along with other key characteristics typically tracked, such as age, career level and location. This step allows employers to more precisely determine whether the mandate is creating any tension with employees, especially women at work, so they can identify the sources and rectify issues.

Customizing an RTO mandate and cultural initiatives based on data findings is key. Understanding the importance of this information link is also crucial for testing work configurations and determining the best approach for both the organization and its employees. Through trust and collaboration — an integral part of a thoughtful and intentional culture — it's possible to transcend physical work locations. A positive work environment can then be defined by the experiences that make employees feel supported and valued, wherever they take place.

Author Information


1Gilbert, Caitlin et al. "Remote Work Appears to Be Here to Stay, Especially for Women," The Washington Post, 22 Jun 2023. Gated.

2Vasquez, Rebecca MD and Amit G. Pandya, MD. "Successful Mentoring of Women," International Journal of Women's Dermatology, Jan 2020

3Organizational Wellbeing Poll: What's Hot in People and Benefits Planning, Gallagher, Dec 2023. Unpublished.


Consulting and insurance brokerage services to be provided by Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. and/or its affiliate Gallagher Benefit Services (Canada) Group Inc. Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. is a licensed insurance agency that does business in California as "Gallagher Benefit Services of California Insurance Services" and in Massachusetts as "Gallagher Benefit Insurance Services." Neither Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., nor its affiliates provide accounting, legal or tax advice.