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Why return to office success hinges on managers with one key capability

Why return to office success hinges on managers with one key capability
How prepared are your people to become effective managers? The data is mixed.
  • Mandated RTO plans are driving higher employee attrition than expected
  • However, manager coaches have teams that are thriving back in the workplace
  • Employees mandated to RTO with manager coaches are 30% less likely to express interest in changing jobs and 31% less burned out

This post is presented by the Center for Purpose and Performance, a diverse community of thinkers, practitioners, organizational leaders, and researchers studying the science behind improving the quality of life and work. 

The Center advances the science behind workplace performance at scale. By prompting bold conversations with scholars and practitioners, the Center pushes leaders to reimagine cultures of well-being and belonging. Seemingly, no other topic deserves this fresh focus these days than the return to the office.

We’ve studied the impact and challenges facing a full-scale shift back to in-person work, and the reality is that many organizations will need not just to rethink their approach to in-person work but reimagine the vital relationship between frontline manager and direct report to pull it off successfully. 

Read the full post below to understand what kind of behavioral shifts will be needed. 


For the last three years around Labor Day, the return to office (RTO) debate has emerged as reliably as the turning of the leaves. In 2021 amidst the surging Delta coronavirus variant, employers pushed employees to return to the office at least some of the time. Last fall, major tech players announced big plans to bring their people back onsite full-time. 

This year seems to be no different, however shifts in employee desires may be signaling an even bumpier road than previously. In one new survey, upwards of 80% of bosses regret their initial return-to-office decisions and say they would have approached their plans differently if they had a better understanding of what their employees wanted. 

RTO may be one of the biggest (and trickier) operational and talent challenges right now. Three recent studies confirm this:

Unispace found that nearly half (42%) of companies with return-to-office mandates witnessed higher employee attrition than anticipated.

Meanwhile, 76% of employees say they are ready to quit if their companies decide to pull the plug on flexible work schedules, according to a Greenhouse report.

In a survey from SHED, employees estimate that shifting from a flexible work model to a traditional one is like experiencing a 2% to 3% pay cut.

However, not everyone is struggling with the return to the workplace. There’s a cohort of employees across different industries and demographics who aren’t just begrudgingly returning onsite — they’re thriving and finding plenty of support from their managers. 

The study

We surveyed 1,012 full-time US-based workers who have experienced a significant increase in time spent in the office in the last 12 months. Roughly two-thirds of these respondents (n=711) returned to the office (RTO) due to a mandate from their organization’s leadership; the remaining respondents in this sample returned to the office due to expectations from leadership (but did not have a mandate) or a personal preferences (n= 301). We wanted to better understand what impact their managers have on their preferences to return to the office, but also leadership approaches that helped during this time of transition.

The results

Employees returning to the office who perceived their leaders as “manager coaches” had better outcomes across the board, from lower turnover and retention to higher engagement and more organizational commitment. 

What is a “manager coach?”

Manager coaches don’t just have management skills; they have coaching skills. These skills show up in how they lead, help teams overcome challenges, and provide support and guidance for their people. 

Manager coaches approach communication and relationships where questions are asked instead of answers provided, support is offered without judgment, and development is facilitated rather than dictated or commanded. 

Other coaching behaviors for managers include:

  • Guiding direct reports on specific ways they can individually learn and grow
  • Asking their team questions that lead them to personal insights
  • Helping their team set goals related to their job performance
  • Making introductions to help broaden the range of opportunities for their team members
  • Presenting new projects or tasks to the team as learning opportunities
  • Using thoughtful questions to help team members solve problems
  • Encouraging their team to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses for self-awareness and future performance

Managers who take a coaching approach help people adapt and grow, driving peak individual performance and higher team and organizational outcomes. They scout opportunities for “coachable moments” to serve the individual and the organization. They use team coaching to accelerate social learning and alignment. 

While snacks, free lunches, or even threats won’t get people to return to the office, developing managers into coaches will. 

Manager coaches make or break RTO

Helping your frontline leaders boost their coaching skills has a direct impact across a variety of metrics that are vital for RTO success. Our survey found:

Improved retention: Employees mandated to RTO with manager coaches are 30% less likely to express interest in changing jobs in the next 12 months.

Better engagement: Mandated RTOers with manager coaches are more productive by a 22% margin and more engaged by 39% than their peers.

Improved well-being: Mandated RTOers with manager coaches are 46% more likely to feel psychologically safe.

More trust: Mandated RTOers with manager coaches are: 36% less likely to say their organization acts as though it doesn’t trust its employees.


Overcoming the challenges of RTO

The return to office has proven to be a tricky initiative to get right. Recent polling confirms this, with most bosses saying they regret mandating employees back into the workplace. Nearly a quarter of leaders admit to making decisions based on “gut instinct,” and 57% say that if they had better access to data, they could better measure the success of their in-office policies. 

Our survey data paints a clear picture—building a workforce of frontline manager coaches takes the guesswork and regret out of your RTO plans. 

Kristi Leimgruber, PhD is a Behavioral Scientist, DEIB on the BetterUp Labs team with a particular interest in understanding how work life is differently challenging for those belonging to historically underrepresented groups. Prior to joining BetterUp, Kristi was professor and a research psychologist focusing on the roots of uniquely human cooperation & generosity. Kristi’s expertise in human decision-making gives her a unique perspective into the ways behavior changes can spark positive social change.
Adam Wood is a Principal Content Marketing Manager at BetterUp, where he writes about the future of work through the lens of behavioral science. Over 15+ years, Adam has worked as a content marketer, writer, and strategist for Fortune 500 companies and hyper-growth startups with a particular focus on healthcare and employee benefits. His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Vox, HR Dive, Worklife, Time, Bloomberg, Inc., and more.
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