Return to the Office… or Else

Companies in more sectors are threatening the bonuses, promotions, or employment of workers who don’t come to the office. What’s driving this?

For the most part, companies have relied on carrots to get people back to the office. Leaders used phrases like “would like to see,” while others arranged in-person events.

But the carrots, experts say, are mostly gone. Now, as fall approaches, an increasing number of firms are turning to sticks.

Over the past couple of weeks, firms across industries have lobbed threats at employees who still aren’t adhering to return-to-office policies. One website demanded its employees work two days a week at headquarters—or quit. A retailer’s boss told employees that they wouldn’t have much of a future at the firm if they continued working remotely. And a big tech firm said that if people weren’t at their office desks three days a week they were at risk of getting fired.

To be sure, some sectors, such as the financial industry, have used—and stuck to—tough talk. But experts say the range of sectors issuing ultimatums has broadened sharply. “There are plenty of firms upping the rhetoric,” says Tamara Rodman, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Culture, Change and Communications practice.

As recently as six months ago, firms found it difficult to follow through on such threats because of the hot job market, says Chad Astmann, co-head of global investment management at Korn Ferry. But the number of open roles across the country has fallen in six of the past seven months, even as unemployment has crept higher. Employers feel emboldened now, and leaders are less concerned that employees will quit outright. 

Where and when people should work has been one of the biggest—and, remarkably, most stubborn—issues for leaders during past three years, ever since COVID-19 pushed tens of millions of people out of their offices. Office occupancy has held steady this year at around half of what it was before the pandemic, and office occupancy varies widely, depending on the day of the week.

Managers believe, with some evidence, that full-time in-office workers are more productive than fully remote workers. Recent studies show that several work activities—including onboarding new recruits, kicking off a project, and strengthening team cohesion—are more effective when all of the participants are in the same location. Anecdotally, many managers believe that their direct reports don’t work as hard when they aren’t in the office.

Taking a more aggressive stance also might be a way to shed employees. Rodman says one of her clients began telling certain teams that they had to work together in a particular office or quit. For some of the affected employees, working at that office would have meant moving to a different state. “They’re doing it pretty transparently as forced attrition,” says Rodman,

It's unclear whether the “come back or else” approach will be any more persuasive than previous strategies. That said, experts say that rigid hybrid policies may yield lower productivity and less employee satisfaction than flexible strategies do.


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