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Zoom orders some employees back to the office
03:08 - Source: CNN
New York CNN  — 

Some big-name employers are signaling they will get tough on enforcing their return-to-office mandates after Labor Day.

Last month, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told employees they were free to disagree with the company’s policy requiring them to be in the office at least three days a week. But, he added, if they don’t comply, their futures at Amazon might not be, um, bright. A few weeks prior, the company had sent emails to some employees letting them know their badge swipes indicated they were not coming in as often as required.

Meta, meanwhile, told employees that come September 5 those already assigned to an office must come in three days a week, and managers would track attendance, according to a report from Business Insider. Noncompliance could result in disciplinary action, including a lower performance rating or, if unaddressed, dismissal.

Even if other employers haven’t publicly laid out enforcement measures per se, some have made a point of reiterating or announcing new company expectations about how often they want employees in the office. Merck, for example, put employees on notice that effective September 5 those with office-based positions would be required to be on site three “total” days a week — two of which will be fixed.

It’s hard to say whether such moves by well-known companies signal a broader trend of employers getting serious about enforcing RTO policies. But it’s a reminder that one of the biggest work experiments in history very much remains a work in progress.

Here’s a look at where things stand today, more than three years after the pandemic forced many employers to accommodate work-from-home practices in a way they never had before.

How often people go in and how long they stay

For the week between August 17 and August 23, the average occupancy rate in office buildings managed by security provider Kastle Systems was equivalent to 47.2% of pre-pandemic levels, in the 10 most populous US cities. That’s up from a post-pandemic high of just over 50% in early June but above the 43% recorded in the same period a year ago.

Kastle Systems operates card-swipe security machines in 2,600 office buildings across 138 US cities.

Kastle found that Tuesday was the most popular day to show up, with nearly 56% occupancy, while Friday was the least popular, at 31%.

In the month of July, roughly 4,000 full-time US employees whose work can be done remotely reported that their employer planned for them to work an average of 2.2 days at home every week and the rest on site, according to the Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, which has been conducted monthly since May 2020 by researchers at Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, Stanford University and The University of Chicago. (Respondents use a computer, smartphone, iPad or similar device to take the survey. Results are weighted to match the distribution of the target population of full-time US workers across age, sex, education and earnings categories in the Current Population Survey data.)

Meanwhile, one study suggests the hours employees spend at work on the days they do go in may be changing.

Using anonymized WiFi and other data, workplace analytics firm Basking studied a small sampling of 26 US offices across seven mostly multinational employers and found that in the first half of this year, only 55% of office visits on average lasted for more than 6 hours, well below the pre-pandemic figure of 84%.

The state of enforcement

For all the various data and research that seeks to capture the reality and impact of hybrid work policies, it’s hard to find nationally representative, statistically significant samplings of HR executives detailing their organization’s return-to-office policies or enforcement strategies.

But some recent surveys by workplace consulting firms may offer a window into what some companies may do for the rest of the year.

For example, the HR team at Gartner, which helps clients design and implement workplace policies, did a live poll survey of 225 of its HR clients during a webinar on May 31. Forty-five percent of respondents said they “ask” employees to come to the office “only a few days a week.”

Only 21% of those participating in the webinar said they are mandating RTO policies.

Nearly 40% said they “do not have consequences for not meeting attendance requirements or recommendations.”

And among the HR executives who said their companies are trying to enforce compliance, 44% said managers “meet with individuals to strongly encourage behavior change.” Only 15% said they put noncompliant employees on performance improvement plans, while 8% lower performance reviews and 7% reduce bonuses.