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Senior employees, ordered back to the office, are jumping ship

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The battle royale for the future of workplace culture continues as companies and employees square off over the right to work at home and the return to office (RTO) movement.

A sizable list of companies elected to order employees back to the office earlier this year. Many directed workers to return to three, four, or five days a week. 

How’s that turned out so far? Not so well.

Companies that think they’ve won the battle by issuing strict return-to-office (RTO) mandates could lose the larger war. RTO mandates are causing senior-level employees, women, and millennials among others to push the eject button and find other jobs with companies that have more liberal remote-work polices. If, by some miracle, the Federal Trade Commission’s move to strike down most existing and future non-compete agreements takes effect this year, an increasing number of employees looking for new work could wind up at competitors.

Finding AI talent, which more and more companies are going to need, is already a search for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Adding strict RTO policies to that scenario won’t make the talent search easier.

And while RTO policy pronouncements have slowed in recent months, there have been numerous reports of affected employees searching for new jobs, refusing to comply, and even taking legal action.

Gartner research released in early May found that 36% of senior-level job seekers who have received an RTO mandate from their current employer are leaving their jobs as a result. Plus, 64% of the HR leaders surveyed by Gartner fear onsite requirements will increase attrition.

study made public last month by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago showed substantially increased attrition of more senior personnel at Apple, Microsoft, and SpaceX (all of which had invoked RTO requirements). At SpaceX, which required workers back in the office five days a week, the study showed that senior employees as a share of the company’s overall workforce declined 15%.

A new study by ResumeBuilder.com found that eight out of 10 companies have lost talent because of their RTO mandates. And yet, the same study found that 70% of companies plan to increase or maintain the number of days employees are required to be in the office in 2025. 

Who will blink first?

Keeping track of  employees

It hasn’t helped that some companies, including Amazon, Dell, Google, JPMorgan, Meta and TikTok, have reportedly begun tracking employees’ badge swipes. Dell is also using VPN (virtual private network) monitoring, and has created a badge color-coding system to categorize employee onsite presence. According to Business Insider, Dell also told workers who work remotely full time that they won’t be eligible for promotions.

It’s difficult to comprehend why some top execs at companies with RTO mandates seem more focused on making their employees suffer with commutes, added costs, lost productivity, and in some cases invasive tracking than they are with making a profit. At some organizations, there’s almost a vindictive quality to the RTO policies and the tone of communications. What possesses CEOs and other leaders to create such a toxic environment at their companies? What is this obsession with making employees work in the office when research has shown that employees are more productive when working where they choose?

The cost of doing business in the office

One motivation behind employees’ desire for the freedom to work at home involves the financial costs of going into the office. RTO means some sort of commute for employees, which means time and money, especially if you’re a two-income family and two adults have to commute by car. Gas, maintenance, insurance, parking, public transportation, and toll roads are just some of the possible added commute expenses.

Working at home could lead to potentially less expensive, less stressful, and more flexible childcare options. (Many parents with older children are able to drop before- and after-school daycare programs when they work remotely, for example.)

With the likelihood of buying more lunches in the office, and less time to cook dinner after a long commute home, food costs go up, too.

All of these considerations add up to a significant drag on work-life balance. The desire to improve that balance is the single most important reason why remote work is so highly prized by employees. The COVID-19 pandemic gave many workers a good long taste of it — and they don’t want to let it go. It makes employees more productive on the job and gives them more control over their personal lives.

This is playing out now in companies around the globe. And with neither side willing to give in, the fight will continue to bubble up this year and perhaps even next, leaving employees frustrated and on the hunt for new jobs — and companies in danger of undermining their best assets: their workers.

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