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Managers are being tasked with enforcing unpopular RTO mandates, while their teams try to keep a grip on their newfound autonomy. Is resistance futile?

After three years of office shutdowns spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of CEOs are putting their foot down and demanding that employees get back to the office. They argue that in-person collaboration boosts creativity and productivity, despite a lack of evidence behind these claims, and mixed conclusions from research on the topic. This tension is already showing up across the technology industry, placing software engineering managers in a bind, as they try to keep both their bosses and their developer teams happy. 

Karl was working remotely as a back-end developer for a Toronto, Canada-based visual effects company when his employer announced in the spring of 2023 that, after three years of fully remote work, the mid-sized company was planning to trial-run a hybrid return to the office.

“They did a poll, and something like 90% of people said, ‘No, we don't want to do this,’” Karl, which is not his real name and who spoke anonymously for fear of employer retribution, says. “It was the type of thing where all of the managers were in favor. They all wanted everyone to come back to the office. Everyone else was like, ‘What's the point? We just did this remotely for three years.’” Their protests came to no avail. A policy was established mandating a return to the office of at least three days per week.

Being the bad guy

Caught in the middle are the engineering managers tasked with enforcing the policies, many of which are getting more and more extreme. In some cases, staff have been told in no uncertain terms that promotions, raises, and annual bonuses will depend on their compliance. Some industry giants, including Amazon, Grindr, Google, and, more recently, Roblox, have issued ultimatums: return to the office, or find another job.

Allen, a senior director of engineering at a technology startup in Barcelona, who also did not want to use his real name, has found himself in the uncomfortable position of relaying sometimes inconsistent return-to-office messaging from the company’s senior leadership to his 175-strong team. “For about two years, we were telling people when they were hired that the office protocol was eventually going to normalize to two days per week in the office, and three days at home,” Allen says. “And when our senior leadership team changed their mind and switched to mandating three days in the office and two days at home, that broke a lot of the trust that they had with the employees.”

At first, Allen says that the company’s senior leadership tried to entice workers into the “shiny, brand-new office in the hip part of town” that the company had moved into once the pandemic subsided. When that didn’t work, the organization began to log worker attendance. Allen received weekly reports of who had and had not physically clocked in, which he would usually ignore. His team was performing exceptionally well, had low turnover, and was meeting all of its targets and deadlines. He didn’t personally care whether they worked from the office or “from a beach in Mallorca.”

But in early autumn, the company altered its employee evaluation policy, which assesses staff based on their work output and cultural alignment. They introduced a new requirement for in-office collaboration as part of the company’s cultural goals. As a result, office attendance essentially became a prerequisite for receiving raises or promotions.

Allen was transparent with his team about the implications of the new policy. “I told all of my people that from this point forward, if you're not in the office three days a week, then I'm not going to be able to give you a raise or promotion,” he says. While some of his team members were fine with the news, a handful of high performers immediately handed in their resignations. “I saw the highest spike in attrition in my org that I'd seen in the three years since I got there,” he says.

Layoffs in disguise?

Although some seasoned developers may be comfortable risking everything in hopes of landing a new, fully remote job somewhere else, others feel less assured. It’s no secret that recent return-to-office orders have unfolded alongside a tidal wave of tech layoffs.

As the sector braces itself for a possible post-pandemic economic downturn, the cheap venture money that had fed more than a decade’s worth of growth has begun to dry to mere trickles. All the while, posts on sites like Reddit and Medium detail horror stories from out-of-work developers who have struggled for months, even years, to find employment. This marks a startling departure from the days when “learn to code” became a mantra for future-proof job security in the 2010s. Some industry insiders have gone so far as to declare a “tech recession.”

This climate of uncertainty has fueled speculation that return-to-office orders are, in some cases, layoffs in disguise. Companies hoping to reduce headcount without bearing the scarlet letter of formal layoffs (let alone the expenditure of severance packages) may instead opt to issue stringent in-person work mandates that are either undesirable or geographically untenable to a sizable proportion of their workforces, forcing individuals to quit. 

Even when a reduction in staff isn’t an organization’s end goal, trust is precarious. “What really grinds my gears is that you have these companies that are now saying, ‘We want people back in the office,’ who were all saying, ‘We're so productive working from home’ during the pandemic,” says Ken, a New York City-based software engineer for a large San Francisco software company who is also not using his real name. “It feels like this trend is a ploy to justify real estate spending that companies can’t get out of.”

As a nearly 25-year industry veteran, however, Ken says he feels less concerned about his own immediate prospects than he might if he were more junior in his career. He was hired during the pandemic after being laid off from the major company where he’d previously worked, and got grandfathered into a permanently remote position. Another layoff would of course be unwelcome, but he feels confident that he would land on his feet.

As for Karl in Toronto: By the time his employer followed through on its hybrid-work threat, he had already landed another job at a mid-sized developer shop in town. “One of the reasons I left was because they were talking about going hybrid. And I was like, ‘Nah. I'm not doing that.’” 

“But now,” Karl laughs, “I'm hybrid.”