Return to office mandates grow as Labor Day approaches. Can they work?
Return-to-office mandates are gaining momentum as the pandemic fades and Labor Day approaches, with 90% of companies expected to require employees to work in person at least some of the time by the end of next year.
The controversial requirements have been in the spotlight recently as tech giants such as Amazon and Facebook owner Meta demand staffers come to the office at least three days a week despite pushback from many employees.
Currently, 51% of businesses require some or all employees to work in-person, though just 36% of the workers have to come in five days a week, according to a survey sponsored by ResumeBuilder and conducted by Pollfish from Aug. 17-19.
Another 39% of employers plan to force employees to return to the office by the end of 2024. Just 19% of those firms say the mandate will apply five days a week.
The vast majority of companies that already have returned to the office say they’ve seen an improvement in revenue, productivity and worker retention, according to the ResumeBuilder survey. Eighty-three percent say they’re tracking employee attendance with badge swipes.
Meanwhile, 81% of company leaders say coming back to the office next year will improve company culture and 83% say it will enhance productivity.
Early this year, Amazon told employees they would need to start working in the office at least three days a week, sparking a petition opposing the mandate signed by about 30,000 employees, according to Insider. Last month, the company rejected the petition and said employees who don’t comply and don’t have a rare exemption would be forced into a “voluntary resignation,” the publication reported.
In a meeting earlier this month, Amazon's CEO was described as losing patience with the internal tug-of-war.
"It's past the time to disagree and commit," Andy Jassy said, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Insider. "And if you can't disagree and commit, I also understand that, but it's probably not going to work out for you at Amazon because we are going back to the office at least three days a week, and it's not right for all of our teammates to be in three days a week and for people to refuse to do so."
The publication described the decision as reversing the company’s statement last year that it had no plans to mandate office attendance.
But Amazon told USA TODAY it never said that remote work would continue indefinitely, that it was a response to a global pandemic and that it made clear its view on it would continue to evolve.
The company said meetings have become less effective from home and it’s much easier for colleagues to learn from each other when they can walk to each other's offices or chat on the way back from a meeting.
An employee pressed Jassy for data supporting a return to office edict, according to Insider. Some studies have concluded that remote work hasn’t hurt productivity and has possibly even bolstered it.
Amazon, however, says it has made many key decisions without data, including launching its Marketplace for third-party sellers and Amazon Web Services. Both have been wildly successful.
Over the past couple of years, many companies that tried to force employees back to the office have had to relent or lose workers to businesses that permit full-time remote work in the hottest job market on record.
"Without a clear rationale, supported by data, and a plan to achieve those outcomes with more in person interaction, employees will resist," says Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Flex + Strategy Group, which helps companies adopt flexible work arrangements. "Employers can choose to double down on mandates and risk the turnover and recruiting challenges research is showing can result."
Yet the growing wave of return to office edicts comes as the labor market continues to cool and bargaining power that had been tilted dramatically to job seekers shifts closer into balance, though candidates in many industries still have the upper hand.
In July, the number of U.S. job openings fell to 8.8 million from 9.2 million in June. That’s below last year’s all-time high of 12 million but above the roughly 7 million average before the pandemic. That means there were 1.5 job openings for each unemployed worker.
Bevi, which makes smart water coolers for offices, says usage of the machines is about half of pre-COVID levels. Although usage has gradually increased with office attendance, it has stayed flat or even dipped during return to office mandates in September and January over the past couple of years.
“Our data suggest that while employees are returning to the office more and more, they’re doing it on their own terms and largely ignoring formal RTO mandates,” says Bevi CEO Sean Grundy.