First came the return-to-office policies. Now comes the discipline: How companies are punishing work-from-home holdouts

Photo illustration of a woman sitting at her desk inside a yellow house with a cane hooked around it ready to pull it away and the ground cracked heavily beneath.
Photo illustration by Victoria Ellis/Fortune; Original photos by Getty Images (4)

Earlier this year, Kelly decided to leave New York City to care for a sick relative. She figured she could move away while continuing to work remotely as a software engineer for Bloomberg, just as she’d done for the previous two years. But Kelly’s decision introduced her to the sharp end of office life in 2023, as companies try to persuade their employees to come back to the office. Her plans to move clashed with Bloomberg’s return-to-the-office directive. In the end, Kelly, who asked to go by a pseudonym because of her company’s confidentiality policy, lost her job. 

Bloomberg had been trying to get staff to come into work since last November. At first, Kelly says, the return to the office (RTO) was communicated informally by managers and human resources staff, and through group emails extolling the virtues of face-to-face collaboration. The policy was not strictly enforced. At that time Kelly was still living in New York, and like everybody on her team she continued to work from home. Some colleagues had even moved to other parts of the U.S. “This had never been called out at all,” Kelly says. Her most recent performance review was “glowing,” and last year she received a healthy bonus. Even though she wasn’t showing up to the office, Bloomberg seemed perfectly happy. 

In February, the company started applying more pressure. Employees were expected to use an internal system to record their location each day. Those who failed to work at their assigned office for the requisite three days a week—Bloomberg’s Manhattan headquarters, in Kelly’s case—started getting verbal reminders from their managers. When Kelly informed the company that she was planning to move—far enough away that coming to the office three days a week would be impossible—she was warned that doing so might be “difficult.” (Bloomberg declined to comment in response to detailed questions for this story.)

Kelly pushed back. “I was very frank with my manager,” she says. “I explained the situation—that it wasn’t just a personal preference but a necessity.” Her manager was sympathetic, and Kelly figured the company would see her side. After all, there was still a process in place that enabled employees to request remote work as an exception. According to Kelly, the company had never said explicitly that office time was mandatory, nor indicated what the consequences would be if people didn’t comply. Then there was that performance review: she had consistently exceeded the company’s expectations. 

But Bloomberg doubled down. Earlier this month, according to correspondence seen by Fortune, its HR department informed Kelly by email that if she didn’t adhere immediately to the return-to-office policy, her employment would end. They would treat her case as one of “voluntary resignation.”

Although she made it clear that she would not be resigning, earlier this month Kelly received an email containing “termination instructions.” 

“They are firing me,” she says, “but they are refusing to admit that they are firing me.”    

Employers start enforcing RTO policies

Kelly’s story is indicative of a wider shift taking hold in the workplace. Last year, companies tried to coax employees back to the office. They did so tentatively, acknowledging that workers—now accustomed to remote work’s flexibility—might need incentives to give it up. In 2022, Google hosted a private Lizzo concert for staff at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. Other firms offered free food or clothing. For a while, Bloomberg paid its employees’ commuting and parking costs, Kelly says. 

Still some staff felt that their employers were making unreasonable demands, and many were vocal about it. When Apple tried to introduce a return-to-office policy in May 2022, employees revolted. A survey of over 600 Apple employees by Blind, a social network popular with tech workers, suggested that 67% of them disliked the policy, and 56% wanted to leave the company because of it. Apple, which did not respond to a request for comment, delayed its return to the office several times amid the rebellion

Apple faced an employee revolt after announcing a plan to return to the office.
Tayfun CoÅkun—Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The trouble was that this gentle approach didn’t really work. According to a study by Nick Bloom, a Stanford economist who studies remote work, by July 2022, around 20% of employees who could operate from home were not coming into the office as often as their companies wanted. Managers were even worse at enforcing return-to-office policies than employees were at abiding by them. According to Bloom’s study, 40% of managers just ignored employees’ refusal to come in. 

So in recent months, businesses have begun to put down their carrots and pick up their sticks. According to staff at Roblox, a gaming giant based in California, the company is checking the number of times employees swipe their ID cards to access the building, and recording the location data from company laptops and phones to monitor whether staff are complying with the firm’s RTO policy—which, as of last month, requires them to be at work three days a week. 

According to internal communications seen by Fortune, this data is stored on a digital dashboard monitored by HR, who will “follow up with managers who have individuals who are not coming to the office.” One Roblox staffer says that rumors are swirling within the company “that they will ask you to leave if you don’t comply. Even your manager will not be able to save you.”

Roblox initially declined to comment on how their policy is being enforced or how they’d deal with refuseniks. After this article was published, Roblox told Fortune that its RTO policy applies only to people who were hired as “headquarters-based employees,” and that staff who were hired specifically as remote workers continue to work remotely

Apple’s management also seems to have run out of patience. According to one Apple employee, when he applied to continue to work remotely earlier this year, he was put on a disciplinary plan—“supposedly for performance reasons.” This person, who has since left the company, says that “I have heard from others that they were told there would be pressure to resign” if they did not abide by RTO rules, which mandate three days in the office each week.  

WFH flexibility vs. productivity

So what explains this change from carrots to sticks? One answer is that companies can now afford to be more aggressive. A year ago there were so many jobs open, particularly in the tech industry, that workers held all the cards. When Bloom was surveying companies in mid-2022, he found that bosses feared pushing employees too hard in case they provoked a rash of “impulse quits” from people who knew they could easily pick up another job. 

But since then the market has changed. Tech companies laid off thousands of workers as markets slumped. Employees who might have quit confidently 12 months ago now need to hold on to their positions. “I’m stuck right now due to market conditions,” said the Roblox worker, whose husband was recently laid off. “I had offers from Google but they froze hiring.” 

More broadly, though, companies are taking a different view of what constitutes productivity than their more recalcitrant employees. From Kelly’s position, it looks as though Bloomberg has a weak argument for hardening their RTO policy. During the pandemic, the company’s revenue grew consistently—from $10 billion in 2019 to $12.2 billion in 2022. Why, when the business is performing so well, would you force employees who like remote work to give it up? According to Kelly, “there were never any numbers” in Bloomberg’s memos explaining their RTO policy to staff—presumably, she thinks, because they couldn’t muster the data to support their position. In the absence of hard numbers, RTO demands can look like overbearing and infantilizing attempts to micromanage employees who are already performing well. 

Workers are reluctantly returning to their daily commutes after realizing they have less leverage in a sluggish economy.
Stephanie Keith—Bloomberg via Getty Images

But a growing body of research measures the effect of remote work—and the numbers reinforce companies trying to lure employees back to the office. A trio of economists—Natalia Emanuel of the New York Federal Reserve Bank; Emma Harrington of the University of Iowa; and Amanda Pallais at Harvard University—have studied how much sitting near your co-workers matters. Their paper “The Power of Proximity” (which remains in pre-publication), lays out some startling results.

They studied engineers at a Fortune 500 company. When COVID-19 shuttered the company’s offices, the researchers found that engineers who previously worked in teams housed in the same building received 70% less feedback on their work than when they worked together in person. As office closures scattered staff, they helped each other less.   

Employees experienced the pullback unevenly. Young engineers and female engineers suffered disproportionate declines in on-the-job training. With offices open, engineers under 30 got 16% more feedback on their work than their older colleagues. This advantage disappeared when offices closed. Female engineers who worked in the same offices as their teammates received about twice as much feedback from colleagues as male engineers. Again, when offices closed, this relative advantage contracted. 

The research suggests that even if individual employees are delivering top-quality work right on deadline, separation can damage productivity and equity in the longer term. “Organizations function not only based on performance but also on culture, training, meaning and purpose,” says Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD business school in Paris. “Employees have a role there, but they often underestimate it.” 

How to do a RTO policy the right way

So are companies right to toughen their stance on RTO hold-outs? On one level, Mortensen says, employees who refuse to comply are making a basic misjudgment about what having a job means. “Employees don’t get to decide what the characteristics of their job is. Their position has parameters,” he says.

At the same time, businesses need to understand that people’s situations have changed and that the pandemic altered the rules of engagement. “People have moved, made major life changes, reassessed their priorities,” Mortensen says. “These things are not easily undone.” Thousands of employees joined companies during the pandemic as remote workers and have never gone to the office. When employers start demanding they do, it can feel like the terms of the deal are being rewritten. 

As new rules are negotiated, clarity is key. But too often it is lacking. Kelly was left confused about whether Bloomberg’s RTO policy was formal or informal, a guideline or a rule. She says her direct manager betrayed a different attitude from the higher-ups, and the penalties were never obvious. 

At Roblox, employees are exchanging rumors on Slack about the consequences of non-compliance rather than working with concrete information. Employees say the rules are being applied unevenly and unfairly. According to conversations on Roblox’s internal channels, some of the staff who are enforcing the RTO policy are themselves continuing to work remotely. As one person commented, “Let’s start taking the ‘People Team’ seriously when that org actually starts making their team work from HQ and not dial into almost every single meeting!!!” (After this article was published, Roblox told Fortune that some members of the people team have remote work in their contracts.) 

As for Kelly, her future is uncertain. “I have to live off the remainder of the last few paychecks and search for employment while taking care of my ill family member and supporting my family,” she says. The process of arguing her case with Bloomberg has been “emotionally and mentally damaging.” 

Earlier this month, Bloomberg HR emailed Kelly termination instructions. She wrote back, asking for a copy of the official RTO policy and an opportunity to negotiate severance—which she says the company wasn’t offering her because, in their view, she was resigning. HR replied to say they were bringing her termination forward by three days.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated on April 7 to include new responses from Roblox.

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