Senior executives are using return-to-office (RTO) mandates as a ruse for strategic downsizing, according to a new survey that found many companies only laid off workers last year because fewer employees quit over RTO demands than executives expected.

Although a significant proportion of employees hate the idea of being forced back to work – 28 per cent of respondents said they would consider quitting if their company mandated a RTO policy – fully 37 per cent of managers, directors and executives said their organisation had begun to lay off people last year because attempts to shake off remote workers hadn’t led to as many resignations as they had hoped.

Fully 25 per cent of VP and C-suite executives, and 18 per cent of human resources professionals, admitted that they had hoped for voluntary turnover after issuing an RTO mandate – a controversial management tactic that is espoused by the likes of Elon Musk and NAB CEO Ross McEwan, but raising hackles amongst executives and workers alike.

The figures – which come from a new survey of 1,000 employees and 504 HR professionals conducted by cloud-based HR software provider BambooHR – confirm anecdotal reports that managers were targeting remote workers during the mass layoffs that saw Big Tech firms ditching staff in their thousands during 2022 and 2023.

Indeed, 28 per cent of remote workers in the survey said they feared being laid off before their in-office coworkers – although organisations that had enforced strict RTO mandates reported that the policy had backfired, with 45 per cent reporting “significant talent loss” that is impacting both available skill sets and morale among the remaining workers.

Many remote workers felt pressure to be seen to be working continuously, driving 64 per cent of respondents to embrace the ‘green status effect’ – a term referring to the green ‘active’ icons in messaging apps that imply a worker is online and actively working.

Even though remote workers are overall more productive than their in-office counterparts – who the survey found spend twice as long on non-work activities every day than their remote working colleagues – 42 per cent said they show up just to be seen by bosses and managers, even though 26 per cent said they don’t feel supported by their company’s RTO policy.

“It’s essential to create a work culture that values both social connection and productivity,” BambooHR head of HR Anita Grantham said in releasing the new results as she recommended team bonding activities, open communication, and flexibility in work arrangements that “can foster a sense of community while empowering employees to excel in their roles.”

You can never really go back

Although tougher economic times have pushed many workers back to the office – recent data from XY Sense suggested utilisation of Australian workplaces reached 40 per cent in the first quarter of this year, the highest level since early 2020 – studies suggest most Australian employees prefer hybrid arrangements to a return to traditional full-time, in-office work.

Amidst rising office stress levels and a desire to better balance work and outside obligations, a recent Morgan McKinley study found that just 3 per cent of employees want to return to the office full time – an outcome that at least one executive has called “selfish”.

Yet employees are so determined not to return to old-school office work that 65 per cent of the Morgan McKinley respondents said they would forego pay raises to be able to work more flexibly – and that those forced to work onsite five days per week are the most likely to quit.

BambooHR found similar resistance to full-time office work, with 52 per cent saying they prefer to work from home and 39 per cent saying they get less work done in the office because of socialising with coworkers.

Even among the demographic group most interested in working in the office – Gen Z workers – just 46 per cent preferred working in the office, with millennials the least likely to want to go back.

Rather than using RTO mandates to do their dirty work, Grantham said, executives should make sure they recognise the dynamics of the new workplace and the potential impact on skills and morale that wanton layoffs can cause.

“Work policies should be designed to support all employees, regardless of their location,” she said.

“By tailoring policies to meet the diverse needs of the workforce, leaders ensure employees feel valued, supported, and empowered to do their best work, whatever that looks like.”