Culture   //   September 25, 2023

Will RTO usher in a new phase of quiet sidelining?

Most people are returning to in-person work begrudgingly as employers strengthen mandates and solidify details around their hybrid working arrangements. A smaller share of workers are doing the exact opposite and eagerly returning even on days they aren’t expected to come back.

Company leaders are taking note, raising questions around presenteeism and bias against those who prefer the flexible work they’re told they’re allowed to do.

Common reasons for any reluctance to return to the office center around commuting challenges and personal obligations restricting them from working in-person more frequently. But there are tensions already emerging around whether or not people who go into the office regularly will be treated and rewarded differently by bosses who can physically see them.

And that raises the uncomfortable question of whether this next phase of RTO will lead to bosses encouraging this kind of quiet sidelining, in an attempt to push people to return even more frequently.

For all the talk around the need to figure out new ways to measure productivity, it’s human nature to default to old models and what you can see. Showing up more than you’re asked to is one of the easiest ways to prove you’re going above and beyond and those workers are top of mind for managers when promotions come around, said Lane Severson, a senior director and analyst in the digital workplace division at Gartner.

A Gartner survey of over 2,000 business leaders found 64% believe onsite workers are higher performers and 76% said onsite workers are more likely to be promoted.

“If people want to grow their careers, I think it is going to be a career limiting issue,” Severson said.

“If people want to grow their careers, I think it is going to be a career limiting issue."
Lane Severson, a senior director and analyst, digital workplace division at Gartner.

Spectorgroup, an architecture firm based in New York City, currently has its roughly 60 architects there in a hybrid setup working in-person three days a week: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. 

Around 10 people come into the office regularly on both those WFH optional days — Tuesdays and Fridays — principal Scott Spector said. 

Spector works five days a week and said those who also do are getting better access to higher-ups like himself. He works in communal areas whenever possible to better facilitate more interactions, and buys lunch for everyone on those days.

“I can’t go to everybody’s desk, nor can they come to my desk every day either,” Spector said. “It needs to be that open interaction and it’s just a great opportunity to do that,” he said.

“I can't go to everybody's desk, nor can they come to my desk every day either. It needs to be that open interaction and it's just a great opportunity to do that."
Scott Spector, principal at architecture firm Spectorgroup.

Workers overall though are unenthused about coming back for a variety of reasons, a key one being they feel they’ve lost autonomy and control over their schedules and are now resentful, according to a survey from coaching platform BetterUp.

Those mandated to return to in-person work are more than twice as likely to feel resentment about it than those who are coming back due to strong pressure, according to that survey, which included responses from over 1,000 U.S. based workers who’ve spent significantly more time in the office over the past year.

Working parents were more than three times as likely to say they feel that way.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found more men returned to in-person work than women last year — a trend experts expect will continue as women shoulder more household and caretaking responsibilities.

The amount of time and money spent commuting can also prohibit some from showing up more than they are asked. Those mandated to return are spending about $550 a month on work-related expenses, and said they’d take a 13% pay cut to work more flexibly, the BetterUp survey found.

Returning to the office is more feasible for some than others though, like 25-year-old Maisie Heitman.

Her commute to work as an assistant account executive at a public relations firm in New York City is normally 20 to 30 minutes. For the past year she’s been working from the office every day — despite only being required back one set day a week with the rest of her team.

She wanted a change of setting after working remotely during the pandemic and now enjoys the routine of getting dressed and heading out the door every morning, she said. “I think it’s nice to feel like I have a home away from home but also a clear boundary of work and home,” she said.

Showing up more frequently has also helped her gain more visibility within the company, she said. “A few times I’ve been tapped to help out the founder of the company who I think knows my face because I am there every day,” she said.