The wonky economy is leading to contradictions in the workplace and how corporate bosses shape another round of RTO messaging.
Some bosses, warning of tightened budgets and a future recession, are leading a post-Labor Day mass return to the office (for real this time).
Half of employers say they're planning to reduce their overall headcount, yet many more are fighting for talent by boosting pay and benefits, according to PwC's latest pulse survey. And though 61% of executives plan to require workers report onsite more often, 70% say they're expanding permanent remote work options.
As some leaders move to reign in workers yet again, management experts don't think it'll stick.
"I'm not going to say all, but many businesses cannot operate in that way, because people don't want to be managed in those autocratic models anymore," says Bhushan Sethi, co-head of PwC's global people and organization group.
"There will be a big reckoning around the U.S. and around the world about what it means to lead in this environment," which is to be empathetic, resilient and a futurist who also needs to run a profitable business, he adds. "The older model of leadership just doesn't cut it anymore."
Some workplace experts say a shaky economy could be the leverage bosses need to make RTO requirements stick.
Leaders, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Meta's Mark Zuckerberg, have already taken a firmer "command and control kind of stance" amid recession rumors, says Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup.
But that might not work in today's labor market, where job unhappiness is at an staggering all-time high, according to Gallup, and there are nearly two new jobs for every person who wants one.
Instead, engaging and motivating employees becomes more important to business success during recessions versus non-recession times, Harter says. That includes making sure workers feel like they're being listened to, supported and inspired to feel like "a psychological owner" in their work.
"When leaders have more control, it's even more important they focus on the fundamentals of how people become engaged," he adds.
This time last year ushered in the "Great Wait" as leaders tried to set post-Labor Day RTO dates just as the delta variant heightened Covid risks, says Kate Bullinger, CEO of the management consultancy United Minds, which advises Fortune 500 clients on organizational change.
But as companies gear up for another RTO push this fall, experts say it won't be the last.
"Four weeks into the pandemic we were talking about return to office. Two-and-a-half years in we're still talking about return to office," says Sethi.
People's preferences, and sense of empowerment to voice those preferences, have changed, he says. Some Apple employees have pushed back on the company's call to return to the office three times a week starting this month, and returning Google workers have expressed frustration over reported Covid outbreaks following resumed office-work.
"The empowered worker is going to feel very comfortable going to social media or to others to say, 'we're not comfortable with the stance this company is taking on the subject,' whether it's return to office or another issue," Sethi says. "They will continue to vote with their feet."
As some workers resist new corporate RTO mandates, leaders should recognize "we're in a space and time where the workforce requires different demands. It is not a one-size-fits-all," says Dr. Geeta Nayyar, chief medical officer at Salesforce.
Employers can re-visit early Covid strategies to gauge employee sentiment, like surveys, listening tours and focus groups to understand RTO concerns.
Soliciting employee feedback is one thing, but acting on it is another.
As managers figure out their in-person, remote or hybrid details, there are some "no regrets" moves leaders can make right now, Sethi says: Clear communication of the policy, its rationale, how it will work in practice, and why and when flexibility will be granted, such as when people have health concerns or caregiving needs.
Managers should see this as an opportunity to manage employee morale, brand reputation and even deliver on diversity, equity and inclusion goals, Sethi adds.
Leaders should also be realistic and transparent with workers that the next stage of RTO will likely be a cycle of test, fail and repeat "until we get to something that looks like a cadence, and that has to happen for each company," Bullinger says. "It's fatiguing."
Ultimately, the current workplace climate is "not about wartime or peacetime — it's a new era of more agile leadership," Bullinger says.
But agility isn't exactly a strength of many senior leaders who are more set in their ways of management, she says. "I had one CEO tell me, 'I had to unlearn all the things in my playbook,'" she recalls.
Rather, "organizations need to look at their next generation of leaders who will take the business forward in the next 5, 10, 15 years," Bullinger says.
Leaders more willing to embrace the changing future of work, rather than reverting back to traditional work models, will be key to manage "malaise in the workplace" and declining employee engagement.
"At the end of the day, people want to be part of an organization with a clear purpose and culture they feel aligned with," Bullinger says.