Culture   //   June 15, 2023

Will mandatory RTO improve performance, or lead to more quiet quitting?

Google drew a line in the sand last week when the company announced that employees who are consistently absent from the office could see it factored into their performance reviews. But sceptics of this tactic believe it could merely increase employee resentment and lead to more quiet quitting.

Google isn’t the only company to get tougher on return-to-office plans lately. Over the last year, numerous companies have attempted to get firmer on RTO, only to meet with serious employee resistance. But now more employers are calling time on the more fluid flexible working policies they have had to date, citing falling productivity and loss of culture as the motivations to bring people back.

However, employer rhetoric around an individual’s physical presence in an office leading to higher productivity has had an icy reception from those who claim they are more productive working from home, without having to commute, and with greater flexibility for other responsibilities like child care.

That’s why different companies are figuring out different ways to get people interested in going to the office. While Google is taking the stick approach, Salesforce is opting for the carrot. In a fundraising program called “Connect for Good,” the company will donate $10 to a local charity for each day an employee reports to the office between Jun. 12 and 23. As for which will see better results, the jury is out.

Paul Wolfe, author of “Human Beings First” – and a former HR executive at Indeed, Condé Nast, and, believes Google’s decision raises the stakes when it comes to the topic of returning to office. Some experts have said that since the start of hybrid work, people who go to the office might have a leg up compared to those working from home when it comes to promotions and assigned tasks because of proximity bias. However, Google’s new policy makes it more black and white. Not going into the office will become a part of people’s performance reviews. 

Jenny von Podewils, co-CEO of people enablement platform Leapsome, questions if Google tried everything it could to encourage people to return to the office before coming up with this solution. 

“Performance reviews should be related to outcomes and potential,” said von Podewils. “Being at the office is not a competency. It sounds maybe even a tiny bit desperate if you have to put it into the performance review for it to ultimately work. Has everything else really been tested to make it work before that’s what you opt for?”

Despite how Google came to its decision when companies start implementing policies like this one, which usually doesn’t consider employee feedback, it raises additional questions like will it actually motivate employees to the office or can it lead to resentment? 

“Typically executive leadership teams are mostly white and mostly men and are highly compensated,” said Wolfe. “What does this mean to the single parent who has two kids and right now works remote or hybrid and only has to pay for childcare the one or two days they’re in the office? Now they’re being forced to do more.”

“What does this mean to the single parent who has two kids and right now works remote or hybrid and only has to pay for childcare the one or two days they’re in the office? Now they’re being forced to do more.”
Paul Wolfe, author of "Human Beings First."

Plus, the question of whether workers get more done in the office remains largely unanswered with hard data on productivity and collaboration. Pressure will now be on ensuring those three days in the office lead to higher performance than at home.

“Global companies had this issue before the pandemic,” said Wolfe. “People were in offices, but they were in different offices. During my time at Indeed, my eight direct reports sat in five different offices. How is this any different? It’s a direct report of mine sitting in Austin vs. their house. We were able to manage that way.”

But ultimately employees are left with a choice on what they want to do next. When a company implements a policy like Google’s, it could lead to resentment from an employee who decides to partake in trends like quiet quitting or bare minimum Mondays. Or, they might decide to leave entirely for a company that prioritizes flexibility.

“I do think employees still have the ability to make a choice, even in the interesting labor market and economy we are still navigating,” said Wolfe. “People will make a choice by going someplace else that allows flexibility. That flexibility allows them to live their best life.”

Having aligned expectations

What von Podewils says is important is ensuring that employers and employees have aligned expectations when it comes to whether or not the company is moving to more days in the office or not. 

“What’s the expectation that has been set,” said von Podewils. “The expectation to bring folks into the office and optimize for hybrid culture is a choice for an organization and who they want to be and how they want to go about reaching business objectives.”

If the expectation is that a company is optimizing for hybrid, a person preferring remote work might consider elsewhere. Google employees on Blind, an anonymous workplace discussion platform, have said that the new policy has led them to consider other endeavors. “Once the market starts getting hot you will see tons of Googlers leaving,” wrote one verified Google employee. “Obviously there are 10x more who want to get to Google so Google doesn’t care in the end.”

At the same time, though, younger employees say they’re looking forward to in-office work as they haven’t learned much while at home. And similar to other return to office discussions, Google employees say they don’t mind working in the office if it means that there is a special collaboration session happening that day, compared to it being a normal work day. 

“There’s still dust swirling,” said Wolfe. “We haven’t figured out the new standard work paradigm yet. It’s interesting, with Google being a FAANG company [best performing tech companies: Facebook/Meta, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google], if other tech companies will follow suit now. Everyone gets concerned about pushing the envelope too far and not wanting to be the first and seeing someone else do it before them. It’ll be interesting to look at Meta now and others. Are they going to start dinging people now from a performance perspective?”

“The expectation to bring folks into the office and optimize for hybrid culture is a choice for an organization and who they want to be and how they want to go about reaching business objectives.”
Jenny von Podewils, co-CEO of people enablement platform Leapsome.

Data from workplace scheduling software Scoop, which looked at 4,500 companies that employ more than 100 million people, found that 75% of tech companies are fully flexible, which means they are either fully remote or give employees a choice on going into the office. While it’s higher than other industries, it’s still a 4% drop from February 2023. At the same time, structured hybrid models grew from 12% of tech companies in February to 17% in May. 

Rob Sadow, founder of Scoop, argues that in some ways the hybrid model is a truce between employers and employees. 

“Maybe employees would like to be in a little bit less and employers have them in a little bit more, but that’s why hybrid is where we land,” said Sadow. “I expect we’re going to stay in the two to three days in the office range on average for larger companies.”

When it comes to whether or not in-office attendance should be a part of a performance review, he says it’s a distinct approach that we haven’t seen before, one that could be frustrating to a lot of employees and might result in pushback. 

Sadow suggests employers consider leaving it up to departments or teams to choose what days work best for them to be in the office so that there is flexibility around what works best for them according to who they collaborate with and their schedules every week. 

“It still preserves more flexibility than setting specific days for the entire company, but probably still not as ideal to a lot of employees as having full choice,” said Sadow.