Return-to-office initiatives or stealth layoffs? Why not both?

The business environment is better than ever, but that isn’t stopping many tech companies from laying off employees. At the same time, numerous other organizations — often poorly run ones — insist remote workers return to the office (RTO) in the name of better productivity. The reality is that incompetent leaders are scapegoating employees working from home for bad company performance.

And then, there are the companies doing both.

Dell is the latest example of a business that appears to be trying to force workers back into the office with the ulterior motive of getting them to quit. It did this by telling remote employees they had a choice: work from a corporate office part-time or continue working remotely.

So, what’s the problem? If Dell’s employees “choose” to work remotely, there’d be no travel funding for onsite meetings, no promotions, no lateral moves, and their remote status would be “considered” in the event of future workforce reductions.

That’s some choice, all right!

Why do this? Easy. If the bean counters can get people to quit, there are no severance packages. The company saves money, the stockholders are happy, and the workers? They’re not Dell’s problem anymore.

Dell isn’t the only one guilty of this approach. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has been accused of using RTO mandates to chase away employees. Justin Garrison, a former AWS senior developer advocate, calls it “silent sacking.”  

The plan, as disgruntled former AWS workers describe it, is to make their lives miserable by strictly enforcing RTO initiatives. The result? They quit. Or, as Joe Devon, chair of the work accessibility awareness non-profit The GAAD Foundation, put it: “Isn’t forced RTO just a way to do a layoff without paying for it in both PR and HR costs?”

Yes, it is.

That doesn’t mean it’s a wise decision, though. As Shelline Bennett, a labor and employment lawyer at Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, warned in InvestorPlace that using TRO mandates as a way to initiate layoffs indirectly might violate the US Worker Adjustment and Retraining (WARN) Act and similar state laws

Some companies simply fire remote workers before those still in the office. For instance, the online furniture company Wayfair fired 13% of its staff, most of whom were working from home. Looking ahead, the CEO said most workers should be at their desks in an office on most days.

Good luck with that plan.

After all, as Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor, told The Washington Post, “You’re risking your top performers and diversity by enforcing rigid RTO mandates. It just doesn’t make economic sense.”

Maybe it doesn’t make sense in the long run, but since when do companies care about that? It’s all about making the next quarter look good. If you can beat the analyst estimate by cutting labor costs, who cares about the day after tomorrow?

Another variation of this approach is the long layoff. Here, companies such as Disney and Wells Fargo don’t immediately show laid-off workers the door. Instead, they keep employees on board for weeks or even months.

Here, the immediate goal is to avoid all the bad press and social media that come from publicly firing hundreds or thousands of employees in a day. And, if a hard-as-nails RTO policy helps get them to quit, that’s a win for the company. Again, they don’t have to pay severance.

Mind you, many companies are just firing employees the same way they always have. That list includes Cisco, SAP, Google, Microsoft, and others.

The really annoying thing about this is that RTO mandates don’t even make business sense. A recent study of  Standard and Poor’s 500 firms found “managers using RTO mandates to reassert control over employees and blame employees as a scapegoat for bad firm performance.” Whether the true motive is to micromanage workers or force them out, RTO mandates are an excuse for incompetent senior management to pretend they’re making a positive difference.

If a company really wants long-term positive change, I suggest firing stuck-in-the-mud management, up to and including the top brass, who want everyone back in a cubicle or the unemployment line. Your business will be the better for recognizing that the future of work lies in the home and with flexible work.

Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.


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