scorecardSwipe your badge or get fired? Employers and workers face a reckoning over returning to the office.
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Swipe your badge or get fired? Employers and workers face a reckoning over returning to the office.

Rebecca Knight   

Swipe your badge or get fired? Employers and workers face a reckoning over returning to the office.
Careers4 min read
  • Employers are hardening demands for workers to return to the office and quashing resistance.
  • But many employees are rejecting the mandates and don't appear ready to back down.

Employers across corporate America are hardening their demands for workers to return to their cubicles — and rebuffing employee resistance.

But workers are ready for this battle.

Amazon's top human-resources representative rejected an internal petition signed by roughly 30,000 employees over the company's return-to-office policy. Apple is tracking employee attendance and has threatened action against staff who don't work from the office at least three days a week. And in March, Elon Musk emailed Twitter staff at 2:30 a.m. to remind them of the company's policy, Platformer's Zoë Schiffer tweeted. The "office is not optional," Musk said.

More recently, Chipotle told workers they would have to head into the office four days a week, according to Bloomberg. The fast-food chain, which had been requiring workers to show up three days a week, announced the shift in late May, according to the report. And in May, groups of Amazon corporate workers walked out, in part, to protest the return-to-office policies.

Despite all the mandates, employees, by and large, don't appear ready to back down.

It's a battle that's been brewing for years. Ever since the pandemic ushered in new ways of working, many people have realized they prefer the flexibility of working from home. Amid a still-tight labor market, they've felt empowered to make their preferences known, and many employers have relented.

Today, though, a concerns about a recession linger, companies are rolling back perks and demanding workers return to their desks or risk termination. The result: a fight over what the future of work looks like in the US.

"It's already an ugly war, and it's unfortunate," Abbie Shipp, a professor of management at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, told Insider. "This was a great opportunity to experiment with new methods and customize based on individual needs and companies' needs."

Employers have legitimate reasons for wanting employees in the office, Shipp said. Things like collaboration, mentoring, and culture building are often easier to do in person. But a one-size-fits-all return-to-office policy is counterproductive and gives the impression of a lack of trust, she added.

"We're likely to see these struggles play out for months and maybe years," she said.

The battle of the badge

There are myriad reasons a lot of workers say they don't want to go to an office every day or even most days.

After 2020's COVID-19 lockdowns forced office workers to work from home, many of them discovered the benefits of remote work. Without a commute, they had more time for their families, pets, and hobbies, and many felt they remained just as productive as before.

Three years later, a large number of people have restructured their lives and aren't eager to return to 2019.

"People are saying, 'I had something that was working, and now you're telling me I have to commute, get dressed up, and that I can't pick up my kids from school,'" Shipp said, adding that many companies had overlooked the productivity gains derived from workers who have more time to balance their work and personal responsibilities.

James Bailey, a professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business, told Insider that on one level, workers' resistance to the office was explained by the psychological phenomenon of reactance, or the human instinct to push back when we feel our freedoms are threatened.

"Workers' refusal to go back to the office is like a metaphorical middle finger to their bosses," he said.

While many employees continue to believe they have leverage, Bailey said, employers are capturing the upper hand as questions remain about the fate of the economy. The recent banking crisis, on top of stubbornly high inflation, weighs on the economy. Many of the same companies demanding workers return to the office have recently conducted mass layoffssome more than once.

"A lot of professional-service workers gained power during the pandemic, and they got drunk on this freedom," Bailey said. "But as the economy shifts, and more companies let people go, there's going to be a reckoning.

"If workers don't want a hangover, they're going to have to sober up."

Workers have other options — for now

Yet it's not clear that employers will ultimately win this tug-of-war.

While US workers are now spending more time in the office, workplaces are still half empty. According to Kastle Systems' Back to Work Barometer, which measures swipe-card access, occupancy rates hover around 47.6% and have barely budged this year.

Despite the drumbeat of headlines about layoffs, many organizations are struggling to hire, and the number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs remains elevated. True, purely remote job opportunities are dwindling, but workers still have other options.

"If companies think that the talent market is glutted because of these layoffs, and they don't need to worry about people quitting, that's a whole new level of shortsightedness," Ron Carucci, a cofounder of Navalent, a leadership and consulting firm, told Insider.

Rigid mandates are the product of "delusional, command-and-control" leadership, Carucci said.

"These executives believe that if you're under my scrutiny — in my presence — you'll be more productive," he added. "They're clinging to a paradigm that's familiar to them, and their inner circles aren't telling them that it's outmoded and not working."

The companies that are managing the transition to hybrid well are evaluating the kinds of work that need to be done and soliciting employee feedback on how best to do it, Carucci said, adding that they're also mindful of their workers' job satisfaction and engagement.

Carucci said he's not surprised that employees were digging in on "petty scorekeeping."

"Given the choice of quitting or doing something they don't think is sustainable, many of them will quit," he said. "But it's worse if they stay because then they're just marking time."

An earlier version of this story appeared on March 29, 2023.

Do you have something to share about getting called back to the office? Insider would like to hear from you. Email our workplace team at thegrind@insider.com with your story or to ask for one of our reporter's Signal numbers.




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