The Return-to-Office Debate and the Strategy Behind Mandates

The return-to-office debate continues as companies navigate mandates and employee reactions. While 90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024, employees prioritize flexibility and may seek new opportunities if it is lacking.

Some workplace experts suggest that certain companies might use return-to-office mandates as an opportunity to restructure their workforce, despite not openly admitting it due to legal implications. AT&T, for example, recently mandated that 60,000 managers across 50 states work in person, but only at nine office locations. This strategy has been referred to as a “covert layoff” tactic by an AT&T employee.

Inducing “soft layoffs” through return-to-office mandates may be driven by economic threats, recession fears, and changes in consumer spending. Companies burdened with costly real estate due to a remote workforce might employ various tactics to reduce their workforce without resorting to involuntary layoffs.

These tactics include slowing down or halting the hiring process, offering voluntary buyouts or early retirement packages, and implementing temporary work reductions or furloughs. The goal is to create an unappealing work environment to encourage employees to leave on their own terms.

Return-to-office mandates can be particularly burdensome as they remove perks such as flexibility, caregiving responsibilities, and commuting savings. For some companies, it presents an opportunity to evaluate individual performance under new circumstances and potentially target less productive or adaptable employees for layoffs. Companies might lay off remote workers and then hire new employees willing to work in the office to fill those roles.

The reason companies may not openly acknowledge this strategy as layoffs is mainly financial. Return-to-office mandates allow companies to avoid legal complications and financial obligations associated with layoffs, such as severance packages and unemployment insurance. Additionally, by associating the layoffs with a broader workplace strategy, companies can manage the narrative and perception of the information.

However, implementing mandatory return-to-office policies without considering employees’ well-being and work-life balance can negatively impact morale, engagement, productivity, and innovation. Skilled and valuable employees may choose to leave rather than comply with a mandate that doesn’t align with their work preferences.

Ultimately, companies that use return-to-office mandates as a way to demonstrate strength of conviction may risk disengaging and losing employees who feel their needs are not being considered. Employees are increasingly seeking workplaces that prioritize flexibility and work-life balance.