Employers are losing their patience with empty desks in the office.

Companies including investment giant Vanguard Group, workplace technology company Paycom Software Inc. PAYC -1.70%decrease; red down pointing triangle and others have sent directives to employees in recent weeks, urging workers to follow existing hybrid schedules or to come into the office on additional days in 2023, according to internal memos viewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with employees. In some cases, bosses have told those who fail to comply that they could face termination within weeks.

Employees at some companies have challenged new directives in corporate all-hands sessions. Those pushing to remain at home say they find in-office work unproductive and commuting inefficient. Employers, meanwhile, say bringing workers back together is important because it helps with issues such as problem solving, training new hires and reinforcing corporate culture.

“There’s a little bit of a tug of war going on right now,” said David Garfield, global head of industries at consulting firm AlixPartners, who has worked with executives on how to approach return-to-office discussions. “Employers are not having an easy time of it.”

For much of the pandemic, companies took a fairly soft approach to policy enforcement, fearful that too rigid a stance on in-office work could harm morale or lead to turnover, executives and advisers said. Although companies set office policies, some managers largely allowed workers to ignore them, workers and human-resources executives say. The average office occupancy in 10 major U.S. cities remained below 50% for much of 2022, according to data from security firm Kastle Systems.

As the job market shifts under threat of a recession, employees’ leverage over companies may be slipping, human-resources advisers say, empowering bosses to push for changes in work styles.

Surveys have shown that most employees are willing to work in an office at least a few days a week, and many workers say they see benefits of being in an office. Some employers say enforcing the rules is a matter of fairness to the workers who have been complying.

At Vanguard Group, based outside of Philadelphia, leaders sent a memo to employees in December saying many staffers hadn’t been following the company’s requirement to work in offices on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“Uneven and inconsistent adoption has created inequities in how the model is applied and has made it difficult to realize the benefits of in-person learning, collaboration and connection,” the company said, according to a memo viewed by the Journal.

In the days that followed, some Vanguard employees say they were told by their managers that if they didn’t comply with the return-to-office policy, they would be terminated in the coming weeks and not receive severance.

At a recent departmental all-hands meeting at Vanguard, a recording of which was shared with the Journal, one team leader told employees that the company was open to shifting its return-to-office policy, but that executives wanted to at least try working in a hybrid manner. The team leader said it wouldn’t be fair to allow some employees to flout the rules. The manager acknowledged that some top performers wouldn’t want to work in a hybrid environment.

In a statement, a Vanguard spokeswoman said that the company had implemented a hybrid model to capture the benefits of flexibility with an in-person environment, and that the company’s collaborative culture is critical for the experience of both clients and employees.

Others are asking employees to work full time in an office. At Oklahoma City-based workplace technology company Paycom Software, some members of the technology team were told recently that they would need to work in an office five days a week beginning as early as January, according to a memo viewed by the Journal. Bosses said in the memo that with a number of critical projects, teams needed to perform at their highest level.

At Paycom, nearly 80% of the company’s employees are already working five days a week at the company’s headquarters, a spokesman said. Many employees began returning to the office in August 2021.

“From the start of the pandemic, Paycom communicated that working from home would be a temporary solution while we prioritized everyone’s health and well-being,” a spokesman said. “We are excited to have our final few departments join their colleagues in office.”

Several large New York banks, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., GS 0.89%increase; green up pointing triangle took a hard-line approach earlier in the pandemic and pushed to get employees back together. The result is that offices now look largely like they did before Covid-19, executives say.

“We have nudged, cajoled, evolved,” David Solomon, Goldman Sachs’s chief executive, said at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in December. “But the bottom line is, we generally are operating pretty close to the way we operated before the pandemic.”

When hiring new employees, some companies are now explicit about on-site requirements. In initial interviews for roles at LifePro Financial Services Inc. in San Diego, candidates are told that the job is “100% in-office,” said Heather Ulz, LifePro’s chief executive.

The roughly 40-person company worked remotely early in the pandemic, although burnout increased and productivity slipped for some employees, Ms. Ulz said. She brought people back full time in the summer of 2020, even as some pushed for the continuation of remote work.

Over time, almost a third of the firm’s employees quit after deciding the office policy wasn’t for them, Ms. Ulz said. It can now take longer to fill positions because of some candidates’ preferences for hybrid or remote work. But overall, Ms. Ulz, said the firm’s culture and camaraderie are improved by in-person work, and she sees benefits of colleagues being able to overhear each other or offer impromptu help.

Ms. Ulz, who was ahead of most employers in pushing for office attendance, said many of her industry peers are now asking for her input on how to bring their own employees into offices more.

“The biggest question is: ‘How do you guys do it?’” she said.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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