- Employers are pressuring staff to return to the office with ever-stricter mandates.
- They’re using punitive measures like limited career progression or exemption from bonuses.
- But it’s a losing battle, experts say, with micromanagement likely to drive out top talent.
Before the pandemic, few employees would have the courage to insist on working from home. It was a sign that you weren’t committed to the job.
Now, about 98% of Americans want to work remotely at least some of the time, according to Forbes Advisor.
A group of CEOs, however, seems more determined than ever to hold on to the past.
After the first rounds of return-to-office mandates in 2023, many companies are now introducing more punitive measures to make their employees come to the office — actively tracking attendance, micromanaging employees’ time, and blocking remote workers from bonuses and career progression.
This week, Dell informed staff that most of its workers will have to come into the office an average of three days a week. Those who want to remain working remotely could request special classification but would not be considered for promotion.
Citibank is another company using financial threats — docking the bonuses of anyone who doesn’t come into the office three days a week, The Times of London reported.
Meanwhile, Amazon is sending emails to employees about their attendance, creating an internal dashboard tracking each employee, and telling managers they can fire employees who aren’t meeting the return-to-office requirements.
Other measures have included forced relocation, according to internal guidelines obtained by BI last year. Those who refuse to relocate would have to leave the company without severance, in what Amazon called a “voluntary resignation.”
Amazon CEO Andy Jassy previously admitted that the company’s return-to-office mandate isn’t based on data but is a “judgment” call.
In November, Amazon also added a no-promotions policy for perennial remote workers. Unless they come into the office three times a week, they don’t qualify.
In an email to BI, an Amazon representative said compliance with the RTO policy was one of the many factors it considers before an employee is promoted.
Other companies including Google and Ernst & Young (EY), are introducing new ways to monitor attendance, using that data in performance reviews.
Cary Cooper, an organizational psychologist at the University of Manchester and author of “Remote Workplace Culture,” told BI that the increased oversight is a symptom of antiquated management strategy.
“It’s dinosaur management of the highest order. They don’t understand the marketplace for talent, and they’re going to be in trouble as a consequence,” he said.
Cooper calls the monitoring of staff “micromanagement of the highest order.”
And if companies fail to update these “appalling” policies they will ultimately suffer, Cooper said.
“They’ll lose talent. And they won’t be able to recruit good people,” he said. “That brand is going to be tarnished. People will say ‘I’m not even going to apply for a job there because they want me in five days a week.'”
The harsh demands to come into the office are also fueling speculation that, as waves of layoffs hit multiple industries, they are a strategy to push out more staff — a phenomenon known as “quiet firing.”
Remote employees at Dell and Amazon have told BI they believe their company’s return-to-office mandates are meant to push out workers who live far from office hubs, helping them avoid the publicity of more layoffs.
Justin Garrison, a senior Amazon Web Services employee until he quit last month, previously told BI that quiet sacking “is how Amazon is going to reduce operational costs without negatively affecting the stock price. Layoffs make negative news which lowers the stock.”
Whether overcontrolling bosses or “quiet firing,” these stricter policies indirectly impact some more than others, Cooper says, opening them up to legal challenges.
For example, women — who tend to take on more responsibility for the family and therefore benefit more from flexible remote work policies — will take a bigger hit from punitive policies, Cooper said.
After Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest IT company, forced all its employees globally to return to the office five days a week, many female employees left the firm.
Older employees, who often live in more rural areas and have further to commute, according to a survey by Gusto, could also be adversely affected if more companies punish those unable to come into the office, Cooper says.
And with depression and anxiety reaching record levels in the United States, according to Gallup polling, workers with mental illnesses argue that they should be granted accommodations to avoid returning to the workplace.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recorded a 16% increase in mental health disability complaints between 2021 and 2022 from employees who want remote work allowances, The Hill reported.
If any employer denies or limits bonuses for those granted an accommodation to work from home, that could open them up to retaliatory claims, a commission representative told BI.
When research highlights that return-to-work policies don’t improve employee performance, punishing workers who can’t or won’t come into the office could mean a challenging legal landscape ahead for employers.
“It’s not like this hasn’t been looked at,” Cooper said. “If you allow people to work more flexibly, it improves job satisfaction levels, retention, and productivity.