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From Workforce 2023 Guide

RTO or no RTO? That Is the Question

Experts share practical tips for deciding this hot-button issue.

Amenities like those found in the Midtown Crossing entertainment district are attracting office workers back to the city and the workplace in Omaha, Nebraska.
Courtesy of Visit Omaha


f the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that the business world is polarized when it comes to the subject of remote work. Some people love it, some people hate it, while others shrug and say, “Can we just move on already?”

Upwork estimates that 22% of the American workforce (approximately 36.2 million people) will work remotely by 2025.

Upwork estimates that 22% of the American workforce (36.2 M people) will work remotely by 2025.

A recent University of Chicago survey of 10,000 U.S. office workers found that most thought they were just as productive working from home as they were in the office. Some 30% of those surveyed said they were even more productive working from home.

Meanwhile, a study by Owl Labs found that 32% said they would quit their job if they were not allowed to continue working from home.

All of this raises an intriguing question: How should employers decide this contentious issue? Most bosses these days, it seems, would prefer to see people sitting in chairs at desks in the office. Many workers see things differently. They’d rather not see the boss at all.

So, how can a company get everyone to co-exist and be productive at the same time? To answer that question, we turned to a noted expert on national and regional headquarters operations: John Boyd Jr., principal of The Boyd Company Inc.

“Getting workers to want to come back to the office today is all about offering amenities — like day care, pet care, recreation and game areas, state-of-the-art gyms, relaxation pods, EV charging stations, expanded and more diverse dining areas, and beefed-up security,” he says. “From coast to coast, building owners are feeling the pressure to modernize and provide these quality amenities.”

– Julie Whelan, Head of Occupier Research, CBRE


The No. 1 barrier to RTO is the commute time. Companies need to understand this. The wellness aspect of this is important.”

– Julie Whelan, Head of Occupier Research, CBRE


Boyd cites examples of places where property owners are pulling out all the stops to keep their tenants happy and their tenants’ employees happier. “Examples include Hudson Yards in Manhattan — featuring live-work-play amenities like private sky lobbies with views of the Hudson River, gyms and secure valet parking — and Scott Rechler’s RXR 5 Times Square Building (the old EY building that recently signed Roku to a long-term lease). The building is undergoing a $126 million capital improvement and upgrade, including 50,000 sq. ft. of new amenities, including a golf simulator, on the third and fourth floors.”

Boyd also cites examples of office properties undergoing extensive renovations in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Miami, and emerging South Florida submarkets such as Aventura, Wynwood and Coconut Grove — places that are rich in amenities and upscale housing.

Suburban markets will surpass CBD markets in return to office, says Boyd. “I do expect return-to-office campaigns of employers seeking greater worker attendance in the office during the work week being more successful in suburban markets where commutes are less difficult and distractions are less,” says Boyd.

Julie Whelan, head of occupier research for CBRE, says that communication is the most important strategy for managers who want workers to return to the office. “Communicating is the easiest strategy,” she notes. “Other best practices include shifting the mindset around why we think the office is the best place to conduct your work. We need to give mid-level managers the tools they need so that they can drive return-to-office behavior. How can we drive social events around RTO? What kind of training can we give managers so that we can begin breaking down the barriers to RTO? If the goal is driving change in the workplace, we have to enable mid-level management and equip them to do this.”

Companies also need to understand those barriers to RTO, adds Whelan. “The No. 1 barrier to RTO is the commute time. Companies need to understand this. The wellness aspect of this is important. Is there a personal reason that commute is not working for an employee? For example, people are complaining that they are coming in just to be on Zoom calls all day with people who still get to work remotely.”

In some cases, employers will have to bite the bullet and move. “There is a flight to quality happening now,” says Whelan. “Organizations that want their workers to return to office are using this time to upgrade their space so that when people do come back to the workplace, they will be happier. Office enabling work is becoming very important.”

Solving the transportation hurdle is also picking up steam. “We hear that more companies are centralizing their space,” Whelan says. “They are going from more locations to fewer locations. The goal is to drive more interaction of people. Centralized offices are best served in cities because transportation assets best serve those locations. The office will become a gathering place of a couple times a week to a couple of times a month. We do not necessarily see a hub-and-spoke model emerging.”

Another option, she points out, is the emergence of so-called third spaces. “Many people do not want to work in their home office all the time. Having access to a third place for work could be a good alternative. That is growing in interest.”

Ron Starner
Executive Vice President of Conway, Inc.

Ron Starner

Ron Starner is Executive Vice President of Conway Data, Inc. He has been with Conway Data for 22 years and serves as a writer and editor for both Site Selection and the company's Custom Content publishing division. His Twitter handle is @RonStarner.


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