The workers quitting over return-to-office policies
Updated: Jun 9
Employees have long threatened to walk if employers call them back into the office. Now, the dominoes are starting to fall.
Throughout the pandemic, many workers have said they'd quit if employers forced them back to the office. In March, Robert Half, a global recruiting firm, released a survey that revealed 50% of US workers would rather resign than be forced back to the office full-time.
But in early May, one high-profile worker put his money where his mouth is: Apple's director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, resigned over the Silicon Valley giant’s return-to-office policy. The company had started bringing back workers one day per week starting 11 April, then two days 2 May, with a ramp-up to three required days starting 23 May. The high-ranking Goodfellow wasn’t on board with the plan – so he walked. (Apple has not responded to BBC Worklife's request for comment; it also has yet to comment publicly on the reports of Goodfellow's resignation.)
Perhaps Goodfellow’s exit wasn’t surprising – at least not among Apple’s workforce. A recent survey of more than 650 Apple employees on third-party anonymous polling site Blind revealed 76% of respondents were dissatisfied with the company's return-to-office plans; 56% said they'd consider resigning over it.
But outside the company, some experts aren’t shocked, either.
"I'm not at all surprised – in fact, I'm surprised it took this long" for an executive at a high-profile company to quit over return-to-office, says Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behaviour and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, US. She says senior leaders at businesses she works with have all been "kind of watching each other to see who's going to do what first, and what the reaction is going to be" to tapering off remote work. "Now, they're getting the reaction."
Goodfellow is just one highly visible example of a worker choosing to quit, instead of reluctantly accepting an undesirable work policy. Yet there are plenty more workers itching to leave who haven’t yet. However, some recruiters and analysts believe a prominent professional’s much-talked-about move could be a sign that more resignations will follow as RTO policies start to sink in – and workers begin to bite back.
‘A tipping point'
"Companies are really starting to go back more, and at scale – so employees are having to really step back and decide" if staying is worth it, says Elise Freedman, senior client partner at Korn Ferry, a US-based recruiting company. "The other reality is that there are a lot of open positions out there."
These two factors have led to "a tipping point", says Eric Anicich, assistant professor of management and organization at University of Southern California, US, and when workers start to act, others are likely to follow. “Seeing similar others – e.g., peers, co-workers – and respected authority figures – e.g., high-level executives – quit may be the final straw for some employees.”
Woolley agrees, saying more "workers have friends who are changing jobs, and so it can start to seem less intimidating to take the leap".
#Return-to-office plans have been a can many companies have kept kicking down the road, but the road has finally come to a dead end, forcing both companies and workers to react. And, in many cases, they don't seem to be on the same page.
"With much of the #Covid-related uncertainty now lifted, workers may begin to act on the preferences they formed over the past two years," says Anicich. "All of those things are going to be hard to uproot – even going from five days remote to three days remote."
Can all workers do this?
Of course, workers don't all have the same options. While reports indicate that Goodfellow already has another job at Google, workers' ability to transition into more flexible jobs will hinge on multiple factors.
"If you're in this knowledge-worker class, I still see it as a pretty flexible time, and a pretty empowering time, to be in the economy right now," says Anicich, since we're currently in a tight labour market in which many companies will fight over candidates – even if they're as young as interns. A wealth of choice for many workers – especially those in sectors like tech and finance – is enabling workers to act on leaving companies due to policies that don’t sit well.
It basically comes down to how quickly you believe you can find another position – Elise Freedman
But despite workers having more power, not everyone is in the position like Goodfellow’s, with seniority, highly specific talent and a strong network. A worker considering leaving needs to have in-demand skills in a sector actively seeking workers as well as options on the table from companies offering more flexibility than their existing job. It can be a narrow needle to thread for some jobseekers.
Ultimately, Freedman believes "quitting over return to office is less about your level and more about your personal situation", pointing to the wide range of scenarios workers have found themselves in during the pandemic. “I think it basically comes down to how quickly you believe you can find another position," she says.
‘Let us decide’
If more workers really do quit, what happens next?
Some companies may continue to waffle, says Woolley: to guard against this kind of attrition, "many organizations held off on putting out formal policies over concern about this happening, and some may continue to keep things vague or 'flexible'". Additionally, some firms who have released formal plans to bring back workers have since softened their stands, or even reversed course.
Apple has paused its return to office scheme, citing rising Covid-19 cases; it’s not clear whether quits have quietly factored into this decision, too, but employees are reportedly pleased with the delay.
But just as companies were forced to adapt to remote work when they had no other choice, they also might have to adapt to this new, potentially permanent, landscape of remote work. "It can be a hard reality to grasp for many employers, but the old way of doing business is over," says Rich Deosingh, US-based district president for Robert Half. "Retention is a huge issue for all employers right now, and if you take away flexible work options, your employees are going to consider other options."
And for workers at all levels of an organisation, companies allowing them to work remotely – just as long as they take a pay cut – isn't going to fly, experts say. "I think it's starting to move in the direction where people are not even going to be willing to say, 'oh, I'll take a pay cut, or I'll take a lesser job'," says Woolley.
Freedman agrees, pointing to firms like Spotify that are continuing to pay New York City-level salaries to workers no matter where they're based. She says workers will continue to leave those that don’t accommodate them, and gravitate toward companies that say, "'we're paying for the value of you – live wherever you want'". (That could explain why, after Airbnb announced it's never going back to the office, their careers site reportedly raked in more than 800,000 visits earlier this month.)
Still, Freedman also says that big shiny firms like Apple in tech or Goldman Sachs in finance (a company that's forced many workers in five full days a week) have a prestige that may convince some workers to stay. "Some folks are willing to trade off" flexibility for having a big name on their résumé – as well a major pay cheque, especially as sectors such as these are boosting salaries and perks amid a talent war.
But the allure of prestige could have its limits – especially if similarly notable competitors are offering better flexible arrangements. Ultimately, "all indicators are pointing to the conclusion that we will see more churn occur as organizations announce their policies", says Woolley.
It's still unclear that Goodfellow's high-profile departure will be a signal more dominoes will fall. But many workers are growing restless. As thousands of #Apple employees have said in an open letter to management: "there is no one-size-fits-all solution, let us decide how we work best, and let us do the best work of our lives".
This great article by Bryan Lufkin appeared on BBC on 24th May 2022