Taking Attendance… at the Office?

Eight in ten companies plan to monitor employees’ office attendance this year, with consequences for flouters. But leaders face risks too.

Over the last few months, Marty thought he had found a workaround for his company’s return-to-office policy. He would badge in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when his manager wanted people in the office, stay a few hours, then duck out before lunch. Not until he was fired did he realize that his company had installed sensors under the desks and was cross-referencing that data with badge swipes to see who was really in the office—and who was gaming the system.

In what appears to be something of a New Year’s resolution, employers are amping up their enforcement of return-to-office policies. According to a study conducted at the end of last year, eight in 10 companies plan to track office attendance in 2024 via badge swipes, desk-occupancy sensors, keystroke logs, and even old-fashioned manual record-keeping. And many managers’ tolerant attitude toward in-office days for hybrid workers also appears to be at an end—95% of companies tracking attendance say that violators of in-office policies will face consequences, including reduced bonuses, salary freezes, and even firings.

Experts cite the valid reasons for tracking office attendance, above and beyond policy violations—for instance, identifying the best geographical footprint or conducting a cost analysis of benefits in certain locations, says Dennis Deans, vice president of global human resources at Korn Ferry. “It doesn’t have to be a ‘gotcha’ situation,” he says. “It all depends on what companies are doing with the data and how transparent they are with employees.”

But employees are likely to resist the increased surveillance and enforcement, says Flo Falayi, associate client partner for leadership development and DEI at Korn Ferry. “There’s certain to be significant pushback,” he says. The big picture: This could be the year when long-simmering tension comes to a head between leaders who adamantly believe in the virtues of office culture and employees who value flexibility and control over their schedules.

On the one hand, leaders may feel emboldened by the tightening labor market and pressure to grow profits amid a sluggish economy. On the other, bosses who take a hard line on office mandates could negatively impact talent recruitment and retention. “There are clear risks for companies to navigate,” says Mark Royal, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry Advisory who specializes in employee engagement. Royal says monitoring and enforcement could backfire in the absence of efforts to reinforce the benefits of in-office attendance, such as development opportunities and exposure to senior leaders. According to the attendance-tracking study, employers plan to incentivize in-office attendance in numerous ways, from happy hours and catered meals to raises and childcare benefits.

Inconsistent implementation is one of the biggest concerns employees have about return-to-office policies. It’s not uncommon for employees to be in the office while their managers or colleagues at similar levels on other teams are not. “Monitoring can increase engagement by applying the same standards of accountability and fairness to everyone,” Royal says.

To be sure, monitoring and enforcement of office attendance is needed not only for employees, but also for managers and corporate leaders. “The majority of employees are listening,” notes Peter McDermott, senior client partner in the Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise at Korn Ferry, “but they are disillusioned by the fact that in many cases the leadership team isn’t there.” For many employees, that fact undermines the argument that office attendance builds culture or promotes development. “If there’s no reason for monitoring and enforcing office attendance beyond the fact that the leader wants them there, that’s not going to cut it,” says McDermott. 


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