Return To Office Insanity

Return-to-office mandates are all the rage, but why? Financial impact usually touted, but now proven to not be. So what is it? And will I eventually have to relent?

March 2020. We anxiously watched COVID spread, first through Asia and then Europe before it really impacted the United States. In the second week in March, retail businesses started closing and office workers were instructed to work virtually from home. “Just a couple of weeks, maybe a month,” we were told. And now, four years hence, I continue to work full-time from home and don’t expect to change: my employer has stated that in-office or remote work is the employee’s, not the employer’s choice. Cool.
Return To Office Insanity

“MDI Siemens Cube farm” by babak_bagheri is licensed underCC BY-SA 2.0

Truthfully, my employer is not in a position to force RTO, even scheduled hybrid, as many employees relocated away from headquarters, often leaving the state. Employees have been hired remotely, both before and since the pandemic started. Technically I am a Minnesota – Remote employee even though I am less than ten miles from headquarters. To force in-office work would be hypercritical, though they continue to try and encourage more attendance.

[An end-of-summer ice cream party is not an incentive to come into the office!]

Not Everyone Is As Lucky

Many big-tech behemoths – e.g., Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, Salesforce – have created various carrot-stick mandates to get their employees in multiple days per week, accepting the negative impact on morale and increasing employee attrition. Friends are increasingly acceding to RTO mandates, usually hybrid, with no obvious benefit to either the employee or the employer:

  • An Amazon friend who manages two teams in three locations and is always remote for the majority of his direct reports
  • A Dell friend who took the pandemic stipend to become full-time remote and is now required to go into the office twice weekly even though her entire team is two timezones away, plus no local storage means she brings in her own (working) keyboard/mouse each day (as well as tea, cup, snacks, etc.)
  • A General Dynamics friend whose management silo requires her team to be full-time in the office while teams with whom she works are hybrid or remain work-from-home
  • A Thompson Reuters friend who is required to badge in two days per week just because and still primarily works alone
  • A friend who works for USBank supports teams across the country and now has the same virtual meetings she would have from home

Many reasons are given which are often lame and apocryphal: we’re not living our culture, we’re not collaborating, we’re not ideating, we’re not as fast-to-market, we’re not serving our customers, people are not working hard, our finances are worse off. No doubt there is some truth, individual examples, but those are the exceptions and not the rule.

[A previous company installed employee monitoring software that identified multiple employees who didn’t open their laptops or check their emails for months after being sent home. So yeah, I get it, it does occur.]

Microsoft appears to understand that, “It can’t go back to the way it used to be, but seems to be an outlier across Fortune 100 companies. And organizations are not always prepared for employees to return – multiple discussions about returning to the office without a place to actually work.

Unspoken Reasons

For all the bullshit reasons spewed by leaders, I have three basic reasons that companies are trying to force some form of return-to-office:

  • Senior leaders are often extroverts and derive energy from those personal interactions; software engineers and technologists (of which I am one) are more introverted and may even feel threatened by large-scale personal interactions
  • Mid-level managers who rely on butts-in-seats and keyclicks to measure performance, don’t know how to motivate without in-person bullying or intimidation and have shown themselves to be incapable of change
  • CEOs, CFOs, and bean counters who fiscally interpret their mostly empty corporate offices as wasteful, and, lacking any meaningful way to sell buildings or modify existing leases, view return-to-office mandates as a net positive to overall finances.

And Then It Got Real

This paper was recently published by a professor and Ph.D. student at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, which correlated return-to-office mandates with positive financial impact for Fortune 500 companies. The findings showed otherwise:

“Also, our findings do not support the argument that managers impose mandate because they believe RTO increases firm values. Further, our difference in differences tests report significant declines in employees’ job satisfactions mandates but no significant changes in financial performance or firm values after RTO mandates.”

Final Thoughts

Return To Office Insanity

“My WFH setup is getting crazier and crazier” by Sergiy Galyonkin is licensed underCC BY-SA 2.0

Obviously, I’m unabashedly pro-WFH, bookmarking stories that support my views, and debating whomever on the advantages/disadvantages of full-time WFH.

And I totally get how fortunate I am: while firms struggled to redefine their business virtually, while many took unpaid leave when businesses that required customers closed, and while students transitioned to virtual education, it was mostly a non-event for me. Other than a changed location, almost nothing else changed. [I even dressed business casual for a few months.]

The uncomfortable truth is change was afoot prior to the pandemic, working an occasional day from home was not unheard of. Companies often have multiple locations, both national and international, requiring virtual meetings and digital collaboration tools that we rely on today. My previous five employers each had fully remote employees who occasionally flew in for planning, catch-up, or training. So a transition was in progress, the pandemic just forced everything into hyperdrive.

Is remote work for everyone? Unequivocally no. Are there advantages to occasional in-person meetings? Unequivocally yes, especially for major planning or direction-setting events. Does it negatively impact overall business progress and performance? I don’t believe so (even before the paper was published), though actual numbers aren’t available for my paid grade. My current boss said he doesn’t question my work, and I believe I am more productive than when a daily slog commute to an office was required: my equipment setup is better, my environment is nicer (windows!), I take small quick breaks than rather than having to leave, I know how to communicate well with others.

It’s not for everyone, I know it won’t last forever, but I really wish companies would stop trying to force something that doesn’t appear necessary.

You may also like