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Royal Bank of Canada RY-T has instructed its employees to return to their offices three to four days a week, as companies across the country struggle to convince workers to leave their work-from-home setups behind.

In an internal memo to employees on Tuesday, RBC’s executive team says the new requirement will go into effect on May 1. Employees will be able to work from home one or two days a week, depending on the requirements of their teams. The memo says that without frequent in-person engagement the bank’s long-term competitiveness is at risk.

As Canada’s largest lender and one of the country’s biggest employers, RBC sets the tone for other Canadian companies. That is especially true in the financial sector, whose flagship office towers are still not as full as they were before the pandemic sent workers home.

Toronto’s downtown office district faces long-term slump as new work patterns take hold

“When our teams come together on-site more frequently, we are solving complex problems faster, learning and growing more effectively, and ultimately building deeper connections with one another,” the memo says.

“We want to continue to encourage these healthy and positive face-to-face moments while ensuring a level of flexibility that we know is important. For this reason, we are shifting toward a more consistent approach to in-person routines that will double down on our culture and lay the foundation to protect our competitive edge in the years ahead.”

The memo continues: “This adjustment may not be simple for everyone, but it is the best thing to do for Team RBC.”

An RBC spokesperson confirmed the details of the memo. The bank had previously said it was asking most workers to come to offices two or three times a week.

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RBC is the first of Canada’s big banks to mandate more rigorous return-to-office requirements. As of the beginning of March, Toronto-Dominion Bank employees who are designated as hybrid workers are expected to be in the office at least two days a week, according to an e-mailed statement from the bank.

National Bank of Canada said in a statement that, while “there is no ‘one size fits all’ model,” it is committed to flexible work arrangements, and is aiming to have employees spend 40 per cent of their time in the office overall.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Bank of Montreal and Bank of Nova Scotia all said their requirements vary depending on business needs, or the nature of a person’s job.

In early March, RBC chief executive officer Dave McKay said on an earnings call that productivity and innovation have taken a hit as employees have continued to work from home for most of the week.

“We’re in a discovery area and trying to find balance with employees, and you hear a lot of commentary about it,” Mr. McKay said in response to an analyst question about risks in the commercial real estate market. “I think most CEOs would tell you that there is a productivity loss.”

He added that the degree to which there is a productivity gain or loss depends on the department and the nature of the work. And he said CEOs globally have been focused on ways of developing hybrid work models – in which employees work some days from home and some from offices – and understanding the impact that could have on the efficiency and creativity of their teams.

In an internal memo in August, he asked employees to “come together more often in person to work and collaborate.”

The Toronto-based bank has 97,000 staff members across Canada and the United States, and at offices in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Companies have struggled with employees resisting calls for them to return to offices. While traffic in Toronto’s once-bustling financial district has increased from pandemic lows, the pace of workers returning to the downtown core varies widely depending on the day of the week. Tuesday to Thursday is the busiest part of the week, while offices and retailers are largely empty on Mondays and Fridays.

The number of employees in offices in the financial district as of early March sat at an average of 43 per cent of prepandemic occupancy levels, according to data from consulting firm Strategic Regional Research Alliance.

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