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Corporate hardline on return to office backfires

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Thousands of employees at SAP, Europe’s largest software company, have signed a letter saying they feel ‘betrayed’ by the company’s ‘drastic change of direction’ on its return to office directive , with many threatening to leave rather than return to the office or work on-site with clients at least three days a week starting in April.

This is a dramatic shift from the company’s pre-pandemic approach, which allowed about half of SAP’s workforce to work remotely. As recently as 2021, SAP CEO Christian Klein described SAP as a “100% flexible, trust-based workplace.” But like many executives, Klein’s view changed as labor market dynamics tilted in favor of employers. After the company reported strong earnings last month, Klein expressed frustration with the effects of remote work on SAP’s culture.

“I don’t really believe that on a video conferencing platform you can understand our culture, you can educate yourself and allow yourself to do your job best,” Klein said, according to a report from Bloomberg News.

The German software giant is one of several large companies – joining Google, AT&T, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America – that have moved from a flexible to a firm stance on in-person attendance, signaling that times of ubiquitous remote work is a thing of the past. Companies have abandoned efforts to entice workers back with free lunches, charitable donations and concerts. Employers are now adopting more punitive approaches, and some workers I would rather stop than to comply.

No, office mandates don’t help businesses make more money, study finds

Two weeks after SAP’s office attendance announcement, first reported by Bloomberg, a letter of opposition had garnered more than 5,000 employee signatures. The union group representing SAP employees in Europe called the policy “unreasonable” given previous assurances given to employees regarding remote working.

Joellen Perry, a spokesperson for SAP, said the company looked forward to discussing the hybrid work approach with employees during the “transition period” between now and April.

“Finding the right balance between remote and on-site work helps drive productivity, innovation and employee well-being,” Perry said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “We are evolving our flexible working policy to align with market best practices and our own experience as a leader in hybrid working. »

More than three years later, the battle for positions is fiercer and more tenacious than ever. Last month, Bank of America sent “education letters” to workers who failed to meet the company’s attendance expectations, threatening them with disciplinary action if they did not step up their efforts. two weeks. By 2023, remote workers were 35% more likely to be laid off than their peers who worked in-person or hybrid schedules, according to data from Live Data Technologies, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Some companies that have implemented flexible policies during the pandemic have tried to tie office attendance to performance reviews, while others have threatened to fire those who don’t come in often enough. Over the summer, Google cracked down on enforcement of its return-to-power mandate. Employees who don’t comply could see this reflected in their performance reviews, which could limit their ability to be promoted or receive raises. Similarly, Goldman Sachs in August reminded workers who did not comply with company rules five-day mandate. Employees can also see non-compliances reflected in their reviews.

But some workers say their office mandates are unreasonable and that employers use them as a way to fire employees.

“There are CEOs who see a two birds, one stone situation with RTO,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas. He stressed that companies that focus on office traffic should prepare for battle. “Right now we have seen a lot of revolts. »

Back to the office? These workers instead resigned

At AT&T, for example, more than 60,000 managers have been mandated to return to the office in a hybrid manner starting in July. But the company has reduced the number of offices for managers, making travel more difficult or impossible for some, employees said. Workers said the mandate also applied to employees who had remote work benefits even before the pandemic and those who had been permanently hired remotely during the pandemic. They said the majority of workers had not been offered any relocation assistance as part of their mandate, a detail that chief technology officer Jeremy Legg confirmed at a recent town hall meeting.

“It doesn’t surprise me that there are people who are upset,” Legg said.

As a result, many workers are waiting to be laid off or looking for new opportunities, employees said.

Dating app workers Grindr were placed in a similar situation after their terms ended last year. Employees were required to work in assigned offices, regardless of where they lived. For some workers, this meant they had to travel halfway across the country rather than working from their office in their city. He also asked workers who thought they would be permanently remote to comply. As a result, about 45 percent of Grindr’s 178 employees resigned, the workers said.

The pandemic demonstrated that workers could work effectively from home, using technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack to collaborate with teammates in different locations. Several companies praised their employees’ ability to remain productive while working remotely before changing course as the pandemic eased.

Even pandemic darling Zoom, which allowed millions to work remotely during lockdowns across the world, has been calling people back to the office. Last August, he asked workers within a 50-mile radius of an office to enter two days a weeksuggesting they needed to experiment with hybrid working to create better products.

For many workers, mandates simply don’t make sense, and some research supports their views. A recent study showed that mandates don’t help companies make more moneyFor example.

“We don’t see significant losses in performance or engagement (with remote work), so mandatory on-site presence signals distrust and reduces what employees have been doing over the past few years,” said Annika Jessen , research director at Gartner. resource practice. “It’s not shocking that workers feel betrayed.”

Office occupancy rates in the nation’s largest business centers have hovered around 50% of pre-pandemic levels over the past year, despite a host of mandates from employers to spend more time in person. But early signs in 2024 suggest the mandates may have some effect: The national average office occupancy rate hit a post-pandemic high of 51.8% last week, according to data from Kastle Systems.

The downsides of remote work have been more severe for younger workers, many of whom have struggled to build networks and mentoring relationships in the age of Zoom. In 2023, Data from the Pew Research Center found that younger workers face higher levels of burnout and disengagement. Many bosses said their younger employees were most eager to comply with mandates to return to power.

Kayla Flick, 25, an engineer at General Mills in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, expected her work life to be predictable. Instead, she was surprised by the churn she saw as her colleagues and mentors came and went around the manufacturing plant. Many of his colleagues left for more flexible jobs, Flick says: but she personally can’t imagine not working in person.

After the isolation and disruption caused by the pandemic while attending college, she relished the opportunity to connect in person with colleagues, especially those just starting out in their careers. She used to commute 40 minutes from Nashville, but recently moved to Murfreesboro to be closer to the factory and her friends. She loves getting together with colleagues for happy hours, volleyball games and picnics.

“We’re pretty good at saying, ‘If everyone can get out early today, let’s go to the park,’ and have someone bring a cooler with beer,” Flick said. “That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy.”

Gartner’s Jessen said companies that don’t think through strict mandates should be prepared to lose top talent, millennials and women. Employers should instead conduct a cost-benefit analysis from the employee perspective, she said, adding that employees want to feel capable, empowered and connected.

“Get feedback from employees on what’s working or not working, and be willing to adapt and adjust policies,” Jessen said. “It’s not all or nothing.”

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