Return to office mandates had senior employees jumping ship

More stringent rules led to staff to find more remote options

A study has found that return to office mandates resulted in a noteworthy number of senior employees leaving jobs at Microsoft, Apple, and SpaceX.

Penned by researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Chicago, the study [PDF] analyzed resume data via People Data Labs from a variety of tech companies to measure what effect return to office mandates had on workforce demographics. They took particular interest in Microsoft, Apple, and SpaceX since these were some of the first employers to demand a shift back to working on-site.

These return to office mandates also predated the massive tech industry layoffs that began in 2022, helping to isolate the impact from the remote working rules.

Microsoft, which issued its return to office order in April 2022, required employees to spend at least half the week in the office. By contrast, Apple only asked for a single day, while SpaceX abolished remote work altogether.

Even with a somewhat middle-of-the-road policy, Microsoft's data shows over a four percent increase in the share of positions held by sub-senior employees immediately after implementing its return to office mandate.

It was a similar story at Apple, which saw a near 4 percent rise in sub-senior positions vacating. However, SpaceX experienced an even larger loss of top talent as its sub-senior worker share rose by 15 percent. The data implies that return to office mandates could convince senior employees to leave, and the stricter the mandates are, the more likely they are to jump ship.

"One thing we would like to emphasize is that these estimates are 'causal' in the sense that we account for what would have happened at Microsoft in the absence of an RTO [return to office mandate]," said co-author David Van Dijcke to The Register. "So we are not just reporting a before and after comparison, and it is unlikely that these effects are driven by factors unrelated to the RTO."

Essentially, the figures show what would have happened at the three tech giants had they not issued their office mandates.

Overall, the general experience level of Microsoft employees declined. Staff with less than two years of tenure at the tech firm increased, while the amount of employees with tenure above two years saw visible shrinkage, especially among those who had racked up between two and six years at Microsoft.

Additionally, the study finds that the mandate eroded the average experience level among the longest tenured employees by a month or two, a further indication of the number and quality of departing workers.

Leaving to get away from mandates if at all possible

The study also investigated where the employees eventually landed. Prior to the mandate, ex-Microsoft workers left for firms like GitHub, Twitch, and tech startups; in other words, they weren't going to competitors.

But after Microsoft issued its order to work half the week in the office, outgoing employees suddenly started finding new stints at Intel, Amazon, Dell, and especially Meta, businesses that didn't yet have a return to office mandate in place.

These movers weren't accepting demotions, different roles, or going into unemployment, and the study notes it's likely that "the senior employees leaving Microsoft have good outside options." However, as more employers have since implemented their own mandates, "we can expect the value of employees' outside options to shrink as more companies implement RTOs."

As long as employees can find places that allow remote work, the study says "return to office mandates can imply significant human capital costs in terms of output, productivity, innovation, and competitiveness for the companies that implement them."

Microsoft took issue with the study's findings, noting their own stats do not necessarily correspond.

"Our internal data does not align with these findings, especially around attrition. It is also inaccurate to say we have a return to office mandate. We have a hybrid workplace that revolves around flexibility and a mix of workstyles across worksite, work location and work hours," Amy Coleman, Corporate Vice President, Human Resources & Corporate Functions at Microsoft told The Register.

We've also reached out to Apple, and SpaceX for comment on the study. They haven't responded as of yet, but we'll update if they do. ®

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