One major question employers are grappling with as they firm up return-to-office plans is how to decide who to make exceptions for. Many of their employees have been working remotely for years, and some have moved to new cities or had other individual circumstances change — which they’re hoping their companies will understand and honor.
But employers are getting stricter with RTO mandates after initially being more lenient and seeing little success in actually bringing staff back. As a result, they’re attempting to create more standardized rules yet are struggling with finding the fairest way to choose who should be allowed to work remotely and who shouldn’t.
Amazon is approaching the issue by making exceptions extremely rare, according to recent reporting from Business Insider, and employees are taking to anonymous platforms like Blind to share their grievances about having to travel across states to comply.
Others like real estate company Redfin have turned to radius rules. Redfin headquarters employees who live within 20 miles of its Seattle and San Francisco offices have to come in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Those outside of the 20-mile radius will be required to travel to one of those offices once a quarter for a day of in-person meetings.
For most companies though, exceptions are largely still being made the same way they were before remote work became normalized: by letting individual managers use their own discretion.
Pre-pandemic, for working mothers or those with other caretaking responsibilities, for instance, “if you wanted to regularly not come in on Fridays, you usually would just have a conversation with your boss, and they would either say yes or no,” said Aaron De Smet, a senior partner at management consultancy Mckinsey.
It’s not a promising method to use going forward though due to varying management styles and personal preferences.
“We have some managers who don’t mind all their people working remote all the time, and other managers who want their people in the office all the time,” De Smet said. “It has less to do with the individual talent or the jobs they’re in, and more to do with the individual preferences of the manager, and that feels even more capricious and unfair,” he said.
Managers with varying views on the need for in-person work have also so far mostly been the ones handling RTO noncompliance among individual employees.
For many organizations, it’s still “up to managers to meet with people and encourage them to change their behavior,” said Caitlin Duffy, HR research director at Gartner.
And some of their employees pushing back and requesting exemptions might be able to make a good case for themselves based on their work performance.
High performers who negotiate promotions and raises could now try to also negotiate their working arrangements, and threaten to leave if they aren’t granted the flexibility they desire, said Andy Challenger, senior vp at Chicago-based global outplacement and career transitioning firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
“If they’re so valuable to the company, it would be worth it for them to make an exception,” Challenger said.
Granting exceptions for those employees could hamper the purpose of RTO plans though by neglecting other workers from opportunities to collaborate with and observe from those doing the best work at the company.
Ultimately employers considering how to make exceptions are asking the wrong question entirely though, De Smet said. Instead they still really need to understand and outline what they’re trying to get out of in-person work and what exact arrangements will work best for their specific organizations.
“We just haven’t built the muscle of being collaboratively and collectively intentional about when and where and who should be together in person,” De Smet said.
“Should there be exceptions? Yes. How you grant them thoughtfully, I don’t know,” he said.