Even hybrid companies aren’t enforcing return to office

Apple called its employees back to the office as the company’s three-day-per-week hybrid schedule finally began in early September. Many tech companies have eased up on requiring office work, making Apple somewhat of an outlier when it comes to RTO.

Another outlier, Google, has been in hybrid mode since April, reportedly leading to outbreaks of COVID-19 at the office. Yet for all the talk about Google’s three-day-a-week RTO policy, two workers who spoke to Protocol anonymously say it’s not much of a mandate. An employee and a contractor both told Protocol that the hybrid policy doesn’t seem to be imposed across the board.

“The impression I have is that it’s basically not enforced,” the employee said. The Google contractor said attendance varied across different teams, noting that while some of their teammates go to the office three days a week, most only go once. (Neither Google nor Apple returned emails inquiring about how their hybrid policies are enforced.)

Sundar Pichai’s plan to make Google “20% more efficient” may lead nervous workers to choose to go to the office more often. (An August survey found that CBRE tenants were “evenly split” on whether a recession would drive more workers to the office out of anxiety for their job security.)

As of now, most companies’ hybrid requirements are only enforced as a “very soft mandate,” said Brian Kropp, distinguished VP of research at Gartner. About half of companies with a hybrid mandate are tracking office attendance, Kropp said, but even those that are doing so “have no real plans to fire people for not coming to the office, as long as they’re getting their work done.”

More than 40% of HR leaders surveyed by Gartner last month said they weren’t tracking office attendance. Thirty-five percent said they were gathering attendance data from key fob or badge swipes, while 22% said managers were tracking their teams’ attendance. Another 10% said employees were self-reporting their attendance.

Companies that selectively enforce attendance requirements may wind up with unfair outcomes, Kropp said.

“If you have a mandated set of days where you have to come to the office, but it’s unevenly enforced across the company, then you run into issues of fairness,” Kropp said. “That just creates more variability across the company, which then creates more risk as well in terms of that inconsistency.”

And while flexibility puts companies at an advantage when it comes to competing for talent, it also requires more sophisticated management, Kropp said. “The question you should really be asking is: Does our managerial population, on average, have the capability to manage much more flexibility, or not?” Kropp said. “If the answer is ‘yes, they do,’ you should push for as much flexibility as you can.”

To run high-performing teams in a flexible environment, managers need to be “half social worker, half engineer,” Kropp said. That means more empathy and more capacity for planning and organization.

While companies may seem settled into their hybrid ways of working, many leaders are leaving policies open to change with time rather than overcommitting themselves. The world is unpredictable, as we’ve learned in the last 2.5 years. “A lot of these executives — the way that they’re framing it now is, ‘This is our hybrid strategy for now, and it could evolve and could change,'” Kropp said.

Amazon falls into that category. As Andy Jassy put it at the Code Conference on Wednesday, Amazon doesn’t have a plan to force employees back to the office: “We’re going to proceed adaptively as we learn.”

A version of this story appeared in Protocol’s Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

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