Study finds a quarter of bosses hoped RTO would make employees quit

Worker happiness hits an all-time low

A study claims to have proof of what some have suspected: return to office mandates are just back-channel layoffs and post-COVID work culture is making everyone miserable. 

HR software biz BambooHR surveyed more than 1,500 employees, a third of whom work in HR. The findings suggest the return to office movement has been a poorly-executed failure, but one particular figure stands out - a quarter of executives and a fifth of HR professionals hoped RTO mandates would result in staff leaving. 

While that statistic essentially admits the quiet part out loud, there was some merit to that belief. People did quit when RTO mandates were enforced at many of the largest companies, but it wasn't enough, the study reports.

More than a third (37 percent) of respondents in leadership roles believed their employers had undertaken layoffs in the past 12 months as a result of too few people quitting in protest of RTO mandates, the study found. Nearly the same number thought their management wanted employees back in the office to monitor them more closely. 

The end result has been the growth of a different office culture, one that's even more performative, suspicious, and divisive than before the COVID pandemic, the study concludes. 

According to the report, most employees working remotely and in-person both feel the need to demonstrate productivity, which for more than a third of employees means being seen socializing and moving around the office. That intense need to be visible may actually be harming productivity, study author and BambooHR's own head of HR Anita Grantham concluded in her findings. 

A full 42 percent of employees who responded to the Bamboo survey said they show up solely to be seen by bosses and managers. If bosses think their presence in the office is making any difference to the amount of work getting done, the results indicate that's not the case.

Remote employees and in-office employees both report spending around two hours of every day not working. Those in-office ones, of course, are probably spending those ten hours a week looking as busy as possible. 

Away from the office, employees feel the need to demonstrate presence by being hyper-available and never going offline - the so-called "green status effect," the data suggests.

"The distrusting and performative cultures some companies are cultivating are harmful to bottom-line growth," Grantham said, adding that RTO policies are okay, but not if they don't consider individual employee needs. 

"The conversation around work modes is one of the most important things to address and get clear on as a business," Grantham said. "It often gets reduced to just RTO, but it's actually a much bigger conversation."

Also, RTO plans have been a disaster

The study might not be reality-shattering, but it does present data that matches what's otherwise been inferred from headlines. 

Economist Nick Bloom declared return to office dead late last year, arguing that implementation rates had flattened, and that remote work had won. By February of this year enough financial results had come out to draw some conclusions about the impact of RTO on profits, and that data showed no improvement. 

And then there's companies and their impressions of RTO themselves: 22 percent of HR professionals who responded to the survey admitted that, despite going the RTO route, they had no metrics in place to measure success. 

In other words, companies have been hasty with RTO plans, some have no way to gauge whether it's been positive, and meanwhile employees are miserable (even those who work remotely) because of an increase in workplace surveillance culture. Employee happiness metrics tracked by Bamboo, Grantham noted, reached an all-time low at the end of 2023, although said that the biggest driver in that figure was low pay. 

The key to success, whether staff stay remote, return to office, or go hybrid, is an open culture that listens to employees and doesn't micromanage, Grantham proposed. 

"The mental and emotional burdens workers face today are real, and the companies who seek employee feedback with the intent to listen and improve are the ones who will win," she concluded. ®

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