Even in the Midst of Layoffs, Employees Are Pushing Back on RTO Mandates

Carlos Avila Gonzalez | Hearst Newspapers | Getty Images
  • Another issue besides layoffs is creating waves among workers — companies ordering employees back to the office.
  • Slowing growth and fears of a recession are prompting some leaders to mandate that in-person work resume, reversing the flexibility offered earlier in the pandemic.
  • Some companies are bucking this trend by continuing to offer flexibility around where people work.

News of layoffs may be grabbing most of the headlines, but another issue is causing waves among workers: companies ordering employees back to the office — even those who promised permanent remote and hybrid arrangements.

Amazon, Disney, and Starbucks are just some of the latest employers telling staff to return to working in the office three or more days a week. Many employees aren't thrilled with the mandates.

Not long after Amazon CEO Andy Jassy announced on Feb. 17 that workers would have to come back to the office three days a week beginning May 1, Amazon tech workers drafted an internal memo urging the company to drop the mandate. They cited the arbitrary nature of the decision and expressed anger over having to scramble to find childcare, caregivers for aging parents, or to potentially move to be within commuting distance to the office. The petition already has more than 5,000 signatures.

Perhaps the biggest question is why companies are issuing the RTO mandates now.

The most common explanation is control, according to current and former chief human resources executives. Slowing growth, the Fed's interest rate hikes, and uncertainty over the chances of a recession (or how bad it's going to be) has leaders reaching for whatever control they can get. Ordering workers back to the office is something they can control. 

The problem with that strategy, says former Indeed CHRO Paul Wolfe, is that some "leaders and companies haven't grasped that the old paradigm of work only getting done in an office, when everyone is together, doesn't have to be the standard and in many cases, doesn't exist anymore."

Leaders who insist that culture and innovation are fueled solely by in-person collaboration are forgetting what was accomplished during the early days of the pandemic, says Wolfe, author of the new book "Human Beings First." "People were sent home, overnight and figured out how to do their jobs remotely in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, in the midst of social unrest and companies succeeded. Are they really confused as to why employees might not like being ordered back to the office?"

In a recent LinkedIn post, Wolfe wrote, "I want to ask, beg, plead with every leader out there — think differently about work; think differently about how you can ensure employees are collaborating, learning, building relationships; think differently about leadership; and think differently about how your company can possibly lead the way so that employees can make choices for themselves rather than being forced into 'your desired way of working.'"

Listening to employees

Some companies are showing that there is another way. Allstate used the earliest days of the pandemic to gather as much feedback as possible about how employees would want to work when it became safe to return to the office, CHRO Bob Toohey said.

In the summer of 2020, it surveyed its roughly 40,000 employees about when and how they wanted to work. When 95% requested a flexible work environment, Toohey says the company knew it had to listen — and act.

Now, nearly three years later, 75% of Allstate employees work from home, 24% are hybrid, and 1% are office-based. Before the pandemic, 20% worked remotely. "The office isn't a bad place and I don't think it's going away," Toohey says. "No human connection is not the way to go, but giving people flexibility is. I just feel we have a unique opportunity at this point in time to reshape and improve how we work for years to come."

This shift also forced Allstate to look at its real estate needs differently. Toohey said the company sold its headquarters in Northbrook, Illinois, and last spring opened a smaller office across the street. There, employees can gather when they want to work in teams as well as find space for head-down solo work.

Toohey is quick to push back on the idea that in-person office work is essential for maintaining culture. "When we got rid of our giant campus, we got rid of a building, not our culture," he adds. "Culture is how we work, how we treat each other, and the standards we set."

As a result of Allstate's moves, Toohey said the company has seen a 30% increase in diverse candidates applying for roles and a 456% increase in internal applicants for leadership roles. As for the latter, he said Allstate is making a major push in creating a robust marketplace within the company, where employees —freed from office locations — have the ability to take on new roles and challenges.

"The barriers to where we can get talent or where talent needs to be located are gone," Toohey said. "We have to live this belief of making work work from anywhere."

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