Key takeaways

Middle managers share an important responsibility to mitigate return-to-office resentment and foster a supportive work environment. Here are our four main takeaways:

  • Transparent communication and empathy are key: Middle managers must prioritize open, honest communication and show empathy towards employees’ concerns to ease RTO transitions.
  • Defining the purpose of in-person work enhances engagement: Clearly articulating the benefits and objectives of in-person workdays can help employees see the value in RTO, improving team cohesion and learning opportunities.
  • Authenticity builds trust: Authenticity from managers, especially in sharing their challenges, is important for building trust with their teams, and facilitating a more positive adjustment to office returns.
  • Support for working parents is essential for retention: Flexible work options and inclusive policies for working parents are key in supporting employees through the transition, leading to higher satisfaction and retention rates.

Dealing with return-to-office resentment is difficult

As workplaces transition from remote to in-person settings, a wave of discontent has surfaced among employees. Many feel a profound loss of control over their daily routines, a sentiment that intensifies for those mandated to return. Consider the following research findings:

  1. Research conducted by Future Forum reveals that individuals required to resume office work exhibit more than double the resentment felt by their counterparts who retain the option to work remotely. 
  2. Echoing this sentiment, a study from the University of Chicago presents an interesting reality: 37% of employees might contemplate leaving their jobs if faced with inflexible work arrangements. 

Such findings highlight the deep-seated need for autonomy and flexibility in the modern workforce, challenging organizations to rethink their approach to mandatory office returns.

Middle managers are uniquely burdened

Caught in the middle of organizational directives and employee satisfaction, middle managers bear a unique burden. Their responsibilities reach beyond enforcing upper management’s decisions; they must also attend to the well-being of their teams, mediating between the two to find a harmonious balance. 

According to insights from the Harvard Business Review, middle managers act as a cohesive force within organizations, bridging gaps and smoothing transitions.

Middle managers’ tasks involve interpreting upper management’s mandates in a way that aligns with team capabilities and morale – they also advocate for their team’s needs and preferences. In doing so, they must navigate a complex web of expectations, fostering an environment where employees feel heard and valued despite broader organizational changes. 

It’s a delicate balancing act that highlights the need for middle managers to possess strong communication, empathy, and leadership skills as they guide their teams through periods of change and uncertainty.

How can middle managers combat return-to-office resentment?

Define the purpose of in-person work

Middle managers have a unique opportunity to shape perceptions around the return to office by articulating the specific advantages of in-person collaboration. Here are two interesting research results to support this:

Research from Steelcase demonstrates a widespread belief among employees in the importance of face-to-face interactions for fostering strong work relationships. Similarly, findings from PwC support the idea that a majority of employees feel they absorb information more effectively through direct engagement with their colleagues.

These insights suggest that managers should focus on designing in-office days around activities that genuinely benefit from physical presence. Office-based activities can help build both depth and effectiveness from real-time, in-person exchanges, such as:

  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Project kick-offs
  • Onboarding new team members

By setting clear expectations for what will be accomplished during these gatherings, managers can help team members see the value in coming together, potentially transforming skepticism into anticipation.

Strive for transparency and honesty

Fostering an environment where open communication prevails is another strategy middle managers can leverage to ease the transition back to the office. 

A survey by Glassdoor found that 61% of employees said that being transparent about company news and decisions is important to their job satisfaction.

Middle managers can lead by example, sharing not only the “what” and “why” behind decisions but also being candid about the challenges and uncertainties that accompany these changes. Such honesty can lay the foundation for a trust-based relationship between managers and their teams. 

Encouraging open dialogue about concerns and suggestions related to work-life balance can also contribute to a more inclusive and supportive work environment. Through transparency, managers demonstrate respect for their team’s input and resilience, acknowledging that while not all decisions may be popular, they are made with the team’s and company’s best interests in mind.

Effective management takes hard work to be impactful

Build trust through authenticity

When managers share their own experiences and challenges with their teams, they lay a foundation of trust that is essential for handling changes, such as the return to office. 

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that authenticity is a key factor in building trust between managers and employees.

When leaders are transparent about the difficulties they face, whether related to policy changes, personal adjustments to the return-to-office mandates, or balancing work and life, it humanizes them. Employees are more likely to respond positively when they see their managers as allies who understand and share their struggles. 

Genuine communication fosters an environment where team members feel valued and understood, boosting morale and engagement. Managers who practice authenticity encourage a culture of openness, where feedback is welcomed and challenges can be addressed collaboratively.

Support working parents

The transition back to the office poses specific challenges for working parents, who must juggle professional responsibilities with family obligations. FlexJobs’ survey indicates a strong desire among working parents for flexible work arrangements, with 80% stating that such options would enhance their job performance. 

Middle managers should be advocating for and implementing flexible working arrangements. Creative solutions might include: 

  • Flexible hours
  • Options to work from home on certain days
  • Support for childcare 

By acknowledging the unique needs of working parents and offering tailored support, managers can help reduce some of the stress associated with the return to office. Such efforts benefit working parents and contribute to a more inclusive and supportive workplace culture, ultimately leading to higher satisfaction and retention across the team.

Tim Boesen

February 22, 2024

5 Min