Since the beginning of the pandemic, corporate bosses have used Labor Day as a benchmark to call workers back to offices.
And in the last year, some of the companies who first sang the praises of remote work, like Google, Meta, Amazon and even Zoom, have cracked down on office attendance, in some cases tying it to performance evaluations.
New data shows that office attendance rates have, indeed, picked up since 2020, though even the latest annual autumn push shows the limits to how many more people may return.
As of the week of September 6 to 13, 2023, office badge swipes in the 10 biggest U.S. cities are at about 50% what they were prior to the pandemic, according to data from Kastle Systems.
That’s in line with numbers from earlier this year, the first time the U.S. hit an average of 50% attendance rates since the pandemic.
To be sure, that’s much better than the 25% occupancy rates in September 2020, or even the 34% attendance of 2021. But it’s also further evidence that momentum to get more people in offices has leveled off to the new 50% norm, experts say.
“The mandates didn’t stick,” says Caitlin Duffy, research director of employee experience at Gartner. With the exception of a few highly publicized announcements and strict enforcement from companies, she says, we haven’t seen a flurry of new businesses announcing new return requirements, or companies actually enforcing those guidelines.
‘There’s still not a ton of compliance’
As of May, roughly 42% businesses have a return-to-office mandate, according to a Gartner survey of 78 HR leaders, and 39% say they don’t have any consequences for not meeting attendance requirements.
“There’s still not a ton of compliance, and there’s still pushback from employees, so I wouldn’t say the tide has turned in terms of mandates becoming something employees are onboard with,” Duffy says.
Some leaders are even seeing their haphazard RTO plans with a lens of remorse: 80% of bosses regret their initial RTO decisions and would have done things differently if they better understood employee attendance and what they’d use the office for, according to recent research from Envoy.
It begs the question as another Labor Day return has come and gone: Is anyone taking new RTO announcements seriously?
“I would say largely no,” says Natalie Norfus, an HR and recruiting expert. She often hears executive clients who say the business can’t flourish if people aren’t in-person. “And [workers] are like, ‘Yet, some of us have had our best years'” while remote, she says.
“I’m certainly not saying there’s no value to being a person at all,” she adds. She thinks leaders aren’t thinking enough about what, exactly, workers have gained over the years — especially the time saved by not having to commute.
Check out: This Montana college town ranks No. 1 as the most fun city for young people—what it’s like to live there
RTO announcements don’t consider employees’ biggest concerns
Commuting times are the No. 1 reason people don’t want to use their office, according to an October 2022 Gartner survey, followed closely by the cost of going into the office.
Take a new mom who chooses a day care for her child 5 minutes from home, Norfus says: “Now maybe they have an hour commute to work. That time lost with their child could lead them to say, ‘Hey, I’m not coming. I’ll just find another job.’ And I feel like there’s not enough discussion around that impact.”
Meanwhile, during the last cold, flu, RSV and Covid-19 season in October 2022, employees said their No. 3 reason for not coming into the office was due to concerns over Covid-19 and other communicable diseases.
As with every September since the pandemic began, the U.S. is experiencing yet another wave of Covid-19 infections leading to more care-giving issues, sick days and other health concerns, which could make office attendance requirements even less appealing.
Then there’s the sheer repetitiveness of each announcement. Several rounds of RTO pushes may have watered down the message or severity of consequences: “That encourages the ‘catch me if you can’ behavior,” Norfus says.
Employees may wonder: If an RTO requirement didn’t work the first time, how many more times might their company try to make it stick?
Meanwhile, “the longer the hybrid work model is in place and employees have gained autonomy in work and life and comfort, taking that away can be especially painful and potentially feel like a betrayal,” Duffy adds.
Half of workers say RTO prioritizes leader desires over employee needs
More than half of employees don’t go to the office because they don’t see the point, according to Gartner data. Other research shows its benefits: Workers say being in the office leads to better face-to-face collaboration, socializing and work-life balance.
Workers want to go into an office where they feel capable, autonomous and connected. But 48% of employees say their office policy prioritizes what leaders want instead of what employees need to do good work, according to Gartner. And just 40% say their company considered feedback from employees in designing its return-to-office mandate.
“Organizations are sending the message and reinforcing what they want and not giving employees an opportunity to share what their needs are, and how different hybrid work setups help them thrive,” Duffy says.
Competition for talent is still high, she adds, and remote or hybrid flexibility is still a differentiating factor.
“As organizations get more strict with return to office mandates, employees will leave,” Duffy says. “And the employees who leave first are the best talent — they have the most options.”
Want to be smarter and more successful with your money, work & life? Sign up for our new newsletter!
Want to earn more and land your dream job? Join the free CNBC Make It: Your Money virtual event on Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to learn how to level up your interview and negotiating skills, build your ideal career, boost your income and grow your wealth. Register for free today.
Check out: The 40-hour workweek started with autoworkers—now they’re trying to make 32 hours the new norm