Why Return-To-Office Mandates Are Backfiring. And Why Remote Work Still Reigns Supreme.

Google, AT&T, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America.

These are just some of the companies that have told thousands of their employees, “Hey, enough of that remote work thing. Return to the office now…or else.”

As a result, we are witnessing a sort of tug-of-war between management doubling down on that mandate and employees who have been negatively impacted by it.

In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at what’s happening. This is an evolving issue that has proven to be instructive for both employers and employees moving forward.

Why Are They Calling People Back To The “Mothership?”

#1 The Pandemic is Over

During the pandemic, whether they believed in it or not, businesses were forced to go remote as government social distancing measures prevented people from stepping into the office. Now that all the hoopla is over, leadership is calling people to report to pre-pandemic offices.

If COVID was the sink-or-swim reason for the explosion of remote work in 2020, it just makes sense that now that COVID has largely blown over, things need to return to normal.

People are now asked either to spend 5 days in the office, from Mondays to Fridays, or get into hybrid mode.

We are in 2024, and if management has been previously soft in their back-to-the-office calls in the past, they have been quite firm as of late. Office attendance will be closely tracked and can figure prominently in performance reviews and can be a factor for promotions and layoffs.

#2 For Productivity and Collaboration

The mandate reflects the belief, entrenched in the minds of many executives, that people working in the office are more productive. (They just don’t know what employees are doing when they are at home. For example, leadership is afraid that they might be running personal errands while on company time.)

Office interactions are considered more effective than virtual meetings, and collaborations are believed to be more potent when done face-to-face. The office has always been the ground where mentors and their juniors interact, where knowledge and experience are bequeathed.

#3 For The Bottomline

Financial performance is a great motivation for any company. If back-to-office operations could potentially result in more productivity, then executives will be gung ho for it as it will ultimately positively impact their bottom lines.

Management is pinning hopes on better and more efficient teamwork and communication and believes that the extra costs of running a physical space will be more than offset by the increase in desired outcomes.

Employees: Nah thanks!

For all the rhetoric contained in those memos, a large number of employees are ignoring the mandate. Even hybrid proposals did not nudge these employees.

For all the challenges that employees experienced working from home—the noise from the kids, lack of private space, etc.—they have not reacted enthusiastically at the prospect of commuting daily to the office.

Employees from Amazon, for example, have staged walkouts when they were required to be in the office three days a week.

Executives of SAP, the German software giant, became recipients of a letter opposing the RTO (return-to-office) mandate. The letter contained 5000 employee signatures and expressed how unreasonable the new policy was and how betrayed they felt about the company’s action.

Yes, the pandemic is largely over. But it doesn’t mean workers want to see a return to pre-pandemic arrangements.  Remote work rebellion: SAP’s RTO push prompts 5,000 employees to sign letter saying they ‘feel betrayed’ | Fortune Europe

And for those who felt compelled to return to the office, they realised that the reasons cited earlier didn’t hold much water in practice.

#1 The Productivity and Collaboration Myth

Folks working at home are less productive than those toiling from the office. Executives believe that an office environment, with opportunities for face-to-face collaboration works best.

But were these beliefs borne out in practice?

Well, as it turned out, employees compelled to come back, became more stressed, depressed and even less engaged. They took longer “coffee breaks” and were just going through the motions. It’s some sort of a passive-aggressive worker rebellion.

It’s not much of a surprise then that the extolled value of productivity quickly goes out the window when you have a pissed-off workforce sitting in the office.

And what about mentorship and collaboration opportunities?

Well, that doesn’t work when Gen Z workers come to the office, only to find that their would-be mentors or other more experienced colleagues are nowhere to be found and have not even heeded the mandate.

It also defeats the purpose of going back when the moment you sit down, you’re flooded by the same emails you needed to answer when you were working from home, and don’t even have time to chat with your neighbours.

#2 The More Money Myth

Executives also believe that the mandate will end up fiscally net positive for the business.

Yes, maintaining a brick-and-mortar location is an added expense, but at the end of the day, the resulting profits will more than makeup for it.

However, research has found that RTO mandates don’t actually result in making more money for companies.

A new study covered 457 firms (from the S&P 500) and 4,455 quarterly observations between June 2019 and January 2023. It compared quarterly results and company stock prices of those businesses that had the mandate and those that did not.

The University of Pittsburgh study did not find a squat of difference in the financial performance of the two types of organisations. The companies with mandates did not experience a boost in performance or stock price.

What they found instead was that workers with mandates have become less satisfied with their jobs.

So again, the often cited reasons for a return to the office have not been borne in actual data.

Why Remote Work Is Still Supreme

Remote work is not without its own set of challenges. When mandates were nowhere coming and everybody was working from home, employees used to hark about the lack of privacy and the lack of real-life interactions with colleagues.

The grass seemed greener on the other side.

But now that they are demanded to come to the office, they realise just how good they’ve had it before. First, they didn’t have to go through the daily commute twice a day.

Second, they found that the extra expense of going to the office: the commute (gas, car maintenance, tolls), office attire, lunch, not to mention daycare, is taking a serious bite out of their monthly salary. That figure’s been pegged at around $863 per month.

But even if the company covers this, it cannot make up for the extra time and effort put into the commute.

At The End of the Day: It’s About Flexibility

It might be hard to believe people volunteering to take a pay cut in these inflationary times. Still, in a survey of 8,400 individuals, 63% of those asked were open to a pay cut just for the opportunity to work remotely.

Employees want flexibility—to work on their own time, to have the chance to spend quality time with their family, to be able to engage in hobbies and to have a life outside work.

It was mentioned earlier that companies are having a hard time enforcing their mandates. Employees are quitting, disengaging, or ignoring the mandate, even those watered-down hybrid proposals.

Being asked to report to a certain location at a certain time of the day to do your job goes against the grain of what it means to be flexible in this digital age.

In this day and age where work-life balance is at the top of every worker’s list, those companies that have doubled down on their return-to-office mandates will lose their top talent. Because priced talents will always have options.

Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who studies remote work said, “Return-to-office is just a knee-jerk reaction trying to make the world go back to where it was instead of recognizing this as a point for fundamental transformation. I call them return-to-the-past mandates.”    

And that’s exactly what it is.

Kinetic Innovative Staffing knows a thing or two about the tremendous benefits of remote staffing for both employers and employees. We help companies, big and small, find remote professionals for their organisations.

With over 4 million vetted remote professionals in our database, Kinetic can fill a broad range of roles and positions, from software developers, graphic designers and virtual assistants, to lawyers, engineers and accountants.

Employers enjoy dramatic benefits from hiring remote workers. Not only do they get to work with world-class talent, but they do so while enjoying a 70% drop in their labour costs.

It is no surprise why remote work has taken over the labour landscape and will continually do so into the future.

If this sounds like an opportunity you’d like to explore for your organization, or if you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us and we will provide you all the information that you need.


Kinetic Innovative Staffing has been providing hundreds of companies in the Asia Pacific, North America, the Middle East, and Europe with professionals working remotely from the Philippines since 2013. Get in touch to know more.

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