Return to work mandates are ridiculous, unnecessary and, in some instances, even cruel - 5 minutes read

I have been a full-time remote worker for nearly all of my career.Return-to-office mandates are not really about productivity or better meetings.They are about ensuring the company becomes the center of your life.

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I am a fully remote employee and have been for almost my whole career. So I can say from experience that today's corporate return-to-office mandates are ridiculous, unnecessary and, in some instances, even cruel.

These mandates are a make-believe golden wand that CEOs are waving while chanting the incantation "productivity."

What's really going on has very little to do with productivity, where the data on the impact of office work versus remote is either mixed or non-existent. Even Amazon, a company that worships at the altar of data-driven decisions, has admitted that its RTO mandate isn't based on data, but is a "judgment" call.

So said CEO Andy Jassy to employees after 30,000 petitioned him not to upend employees' lives if they don't live near assigned offices. Instead, he threatened to dismiss them if they don't relocate to sit at office desks three days a week.

He also said he spoke with 60 to 80 CEOs of other companies about remote work, and "virtually all of them" preferred bringing employees back to the office.

CEOs' desire to see employees chatting in hallways has little to do with producing more work and everything to do with being annoyed by a seeming lack of control.

What's even more ludicrous is that they are trying to do by force what would naturally occur if they simply let their post-pandemic workforce evolve and adopted good management practices to evolve with it.

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy. Among companies with return-to-office mandates, Amazon's are among the most aggressive.

REUTERS/Mike Blake

The other things driving RTO mandates

RTO mandates are really motivated by a mix of other things. For one, CEOs and CFOs are looking at big expenditures on corporate offices that remain either empty or are vastly oversized. So the first reason for mandates is a bit like a parent throwing a tantrum: I'm paying for this nice place and you aren't using it properly!

Another oft-cited reason is that nothing beats the human connection of being together in a room, especially for meetings. Even the CEO of Zoom, who also instituted an RTO mandate, ironically has said that such connections can't be replicated by video calls.

As someone who works fully remote, I can testify that there are important benefits to employees seeing each other in person. That can be accomplished by the occasional all-hands onsite, though.

Even in companies where staff are in the office, workers are using video calls for most of their meetings. Teammates are simply not all in the same office at the same time even if they are all dutifully commuting to their assigned office. Those in San Jose, California, cannot simply walk into meetings with those in New York, India, or China. The US is big and the corporate world is global.

Facebook's campus famously includes areas for social activity and play.

Robert Johnson for Business Insider

Outputs, not inputs

What CEOs really want is to stroll through their office domain and see those under their control — employees — working hard.

However, if a manager doesn't know an employee is completing their tasks unless they see the person working, that's a big problem. Research shows it's better to evaluate employee performance based on outputs, not inputs, as my colleague Aki Ito wrote.

Meaningless considerations include: How late do staff stay at the office? Are they fun to hang out with around the water cooler? The best run companies are focusing more on the thing they can best measure from afar: the work employees actually do.

CEOs want to go back to the days where a "strong in-person" culture exists for those "who like working in offices," as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently posted on Threads.

What that really means is that the company is your life. Not only do you do the work, you also eat there, work out there, and do your hobbies on campus. It is the center of your social life.

Now, some research shows this kind of support is especially helpful to those starting out in their careers. But there's also research, like this Stanford study from 2014, that shows long hours in the office actually reduce productivity for most workers.

So it's not productivity that improves when a company becomes an employee's life. It's dependence and retention. Leaving such a job means upending your whole life.

I know of many a corporate culture where employees fear discussing balancing work with caring for an elderly parent or children. RTO mandates cruelly force staff in these situations to choose career over the rest of their lives for the sake of video meetings at a corporate desk and lunch at a corporate cafeteria. It makes employees relocate unnecessarily, and spend hours each week on long carbon-emitting commutes.

Yahoo employees attend a meeting at the Yahoo offices in Santa Monica, Calif.


Let it happen naturally

In the end, humans are social creatures. An office work environment will naturally evolve back to being a social hub over time, without draconian mandates that lack data and research to support them.

People in offices will naturally make friends, get more face time with the CEO and other bosses. Many will move closer to offices for these reasons.

Companies that do a good job supporting remote work will get the best of both worlds over time: An unlimited and more diverse talent pool and a vibrant office environment. Forcing it down employees' throats now is a mistake.

Source: Business Insider

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