Do You Have an Engagement Problem or an Attendance Problem?

Many business leaders are expressing frustration over their employees’ office attendance rates, but their misgivings are often misplaced.

From conversations with clients, I gather that many feel like they’ve done everything they can to entice workers to return to the workplace for at least a few days a week — short of a strict mandate — yet their staff are refusing to play along.

Many felt like they had established a roadmap for getting people excited about being back in the office — often making significant and costly upgrades to their physical workspace in the process — only to find that their people aren’t coming back in the numbers they were anticipating. Leaders felt like they were meeting staff halfway, or going above and beyond, yet there remains some distance between the results they were hoping to achieve, and the situation they now find themselves in.

Some have responded by requiring workers to return to the office, but those pursuing strict mandates aren’t as numerous as the headlines often make it seem. From what we see, many leaders are pursuing a more flexible/hybrid policy, believing that if they invest in enhancing their workspace, staff will return in large numbers, only to be discouraged when they don’t. The disappointing results often leads leadership to wonder what else may be impacting staff decision-making regarding attendance, and what can be done to influence improvement.

Many view office attendance as a singular issue, but it often serves as a bellwether for a range of much deeper organizational challenges — challenges that employers might not be willing, able, or prepared to address head on. The reality is that when it comes to engagement, there are no easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions. The only way to find the solution that suits your organizational needs is to understand the data. Many organizations are collecting engagement, productivity and attendance data, but most are not correlating the data in a strategic or tactical way.

Some will even segment by department or seniority, but that still reveals little about root causes. For example, you may know that your sales team is more likely to show up in person for three or more days a week than your product design team, but that doesn’t really tell you anything about how to improve office attendance, or even if you should be pushing for in-person attendance for all teams.

Attendance data is not necessarily a marker of engagement.

If you really want to understand why, when given the option some work in person more than others, you really need to consider attendance data in the context of more robust data, as well as engagement scores.

In doing so you may discover, for example, that male employees, or younger employees, or employees that live closer to the office, have much higher attendance rates than others. With that information you can begin to consider interventions to address the needs of specific groups that aren’t coming in as frequently as you’d like. Variations in beliefs, values, lifestyles, genders, races, social status, wealth, commuting distance and age may tell a much more comprehensive story than engagement metrics alone.

Through that process, organizations may find that their attendance rates are indeed closely correlated with engagement. After all, if an employee feels like they belong, like their work is valued, and that they’re respected by their colleagues, it’s safe to assume they’ll be more eager to show up in person. Then again, they could discover that employees who are highly engaged have caretaking responsibilities that prevent them from coming into the office as often as they’d like, and that the problem has nothing to do with engagement.

Use data to identify the roadblocks employees are encountering with in-office attendance.M

Cross-referencing attendance numbers with demographic and engagement data will paint a much more accurate picture of who is and isn’t showing up to work in person as often, and why. With that information, organizations can begin to pull different levers to see which influences attendance rates.

If you believe the challenge is related to commuting, for example, you could offer free parking, or a free transit pass, or more flexible start and end times for in-office workers and measure the effects on attendance. If the data suggests the problem has to do with a sense of belonging, you could consider offering more diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility programs to see if it influences attendance rates.

The right data will lead to the right solution.

The point is that we make a lot of assumptions about who is coming in to work, who isn’t, and why, but without the right data it’s nearly impossible to know for sure — much less offer solutions that make a real impact.

Many organizational leaders think they’ve gotten as far as they can with their return-to-office policies, but sprucing up the workspace isn’t going to entice staff to come in to work if there are more foundational challenges that have yet to be addressed.

Instead of focussing on upping attendance, try focussing on upping engagement, while seeking solutions to more practical challenges that specific cohorts of workers with low attendance rates may be facing.

For more information, reach out to one of our workplace consultants or visit