In the ongoing return-to-office battle, showing up to your desk is becoming a performance metric – just like it was in grade school.
Employers have dangled all sorts of perks – free food, concerts and on-site yoga – to entice employees back to the office, with varying degrees of success. Now, some are taking a more drastic approach: tying in-person office attendance to employee performance reviews.
Google and JPMorgan have each told staff that office attendance will be factored into performance evaluations. The US law firm Davis Polk informed employees that fewer days in the office would result in lower bonuses. And Meta and Amazon both told employees they’re now monitoring badge swipes, with potential consequences for workers who don’t comply with attendance policies – including job loss. Increasingly, workers across many jobs and sectors appear to be barrelling towards the same fate.
In some ways, it’s unsurprising bosses are turning back to attendance as a standard. After all, we’ve long been conditioned to believe showing up is vital to success, from some of our earliest days. In school, perfect attendance is often still seen a badge of honour. The obsession with attendance has also been a mainstay of workplace culture for decades; pre-pandemic, remote work was largely unheard of, and employees were expected to be physically present at their desks throughout the workday.
Yet after the success of flexible arrangements during the pandemic, attendance is still entrenched as a core metric. What’s the point?
“It begs the question, what is work? Is the employees’ job to get something done?” says Bruce Daisley, a UK-based workplace consultant, and the author of The Joy of Work, “or is it to look like they’re getting something done?”
‘Control is a powerful aphrodisiac’
Many companies justify office mandates by citing the value of in-person teamwork, leaning on research that suggests remote work may impede collaboration.
“There’s evidence that people are more innovative and collaborative when they’re together,” says Robert Sutton, organisational psychologist at Stanford University, and co-author of the forthcoming book The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder. “It’s rational for employers to say that there’s some good in having everyone physically in the same place.”
Maintaining corporate structure and identity is another concern, notes Anna Tavis, clinical professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies. “Companies pride themselves on having a particular way of managing their businesses,” she says. “And even when remote workers are productive at the transactional level, management is looking holistically at cultural cohesion. They’re asking: What is our culture and who do we want to be?”
Many workers don’t want to show up to their desks five days a week, but some are left with no choice (Credit: Getty Images)
These may be legitimate concerns, but Daisley argues they also reveal a crack in the management façade. “It speaks to the state of corporate anxiety,” he says. “Employers feel a lack of control and they’re trying to reassert themselves.”
Jay Sterling Silver, a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law, in Miami, who’s written about attendance policies in higher education, agrees. He says that while it’s true in-person teamwork can spark creativity and build camaraderie, tying worker performance to office attendance reveals a desire by employers to maintain the upper hand.
“Control is a powerful aphrodisiac,” he says. “And the requirement that people go through the costly steps of showing up for you, are compelled to show respect – whether genuine or otherwise – when they pass you in the hallway and are available to you at a moment’s notice help scratch that itch for control.”
The inclusion issue
Mandatory attendance can irk all employees, but along with preference for home working, some groups of workers also fear these policies may actively disadvantage them in the workplace.
For employees with young kids, disabilities or long commutes (studies show that underrepresented groups have experienced significant declines in job proximity), the burden of in-office work can be greater. This includes the time and costs associated with getting to and from the office as well as the additional challenges of balancing work with parenting or managing a disability.
“Flexibility might not seem like a diversity and inclusion issue, but it absolutely is,” says Daisley. “Employers aren’t just asking people to pull up to their desks. They’re demanding that they confront logistical and emotional hurdles that can add a cascade of struggles to their already complex lives.”
The re-emergence of attendance policies is a bitter pill for many workers in these groups, who found a better way to make work work in the three-plus years since organisations were forced to embrace flexibility during the pandemic.
Employers feel a lack of control and they’re trying to reassert themselves – Bruce Daisley
For parents, remote and hybrid arrangements have contributed to happier, more productive employees. A small survey of 1,000 working caregivers and 500 C-suite executives conducted by childcare resource Care.com and work-life benefits platform Mother Honestly, showed an overwhelming majority of respondents felt hybrid work improved their quality of life, both in the home and professionally.
Labour force participation among women with young children is also higher than it was pre-pandemic. An August 2023 report by The Hamilton Project at The Brookings Institution showed 70.4% of US women with children younger than five were in the workforce, compared to a peak of 69% before the pandemic. The researchers noted that remote work appeared to be a significant factor in the shift.
For people with disabilities, researchers suggest remote work can eliminate barriers and remove the stigma often associated with special needs. Additionally, February 2023 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2022, labour force participation for people with disabilities increased – the highest since the data was first reported in 2008. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities also declined.
Despite mounting evidence that remote work is not only effective but can also promote greater diversity, inclusion and satisfaction, the emphasis on attendance is still deeply entrenched in many organisations.
For one, workers feel pressure to comply with mandates to protect their job security and career prospects. The looming threat of a poor evaluation could be enough to get many employees to fall in line, according to Tavis.
“Performance management has always been one of the most powerful levers companies have in terms of impacting employee behaviour,” she says. “When push comes to shove, employees are going to pay attention to issues of compensation, incentives and career mobility.”
Additionally, the enduring problem of proximity bias may be tough to dislodge from managers’ heads, says Sutton. The phenomenon – an innate tendency to prefer those who are in our direct line of sight, regardless of talent or merit – drives bosses to believe workers whom they can physically see are more productive or committed than other workers.
Full offices may be increasingly common, especially as a way for managers to exert power over their employees (Credit: Getty Images)
Still, some employees seem less willing to take these mandates on the chin as they may have in the past. Although American workers are spending more time in the office, workplaces are still scarcely populated, as some workers have simply decided not to show up to offices. And data suggests many workers would rather quit than return to their desks full time.
Employers also may find their calls for forced returns backfiring. Instead of cultivating a thriving company culture, experts say the hard-line recalls could lead to a culture of surveillance and distrust. Rather than fostering collaboration, it could undermine morale. Employers may find themselves learning this the hard way.
It may also help that beyond workers, other groups are questioning whether attendance policies belong, especially now. At grade schools across the US and UK, for instance, parents are calling for attendance to play a diminished role in perceived success, and for ‘perfect attendance’ rewards to be scrapped. Law professor Silver agrees mandatory attendance should be on its way out, as it “corrupts grades as a pure measurement of performance”.
Stubbornly clinging to mandatory office attendance has the potential to breed missed opportunities, reduced productivity and lower employee satisfaction. “Bosses are sending the message that physical presence trumps actual performance,” says Daisley. “But that’s a trap. And it’s a flawed idea of what work is.”