Big Tech: You Can't Work From Home Anymore; Workers: Well, BYE

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

What's the smarter move for a big tech firm, allowing their senior talent to maintain the work-from-home freedoms they gained during the (unnecessary, destructive, and illegal) COVID-19 lockdowns or losing them to competitors?

Researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan looked at the results of corporate America's return-to-office (RTO) policies and found that, at least at three of the biggest tech firms, the results were maybe not what the C-Suite had hoped for.

It's pretty dry reading, but "Return to Office and the Tenure Distribution" showed that "despite their ubiquity, the economic implications of return to office policies are not fully understood." What they did understand, however, at Apple, Microsoft, and SpaceX is that trying to force some of their best talent to come back to the office sent them packing for other employers instead.

"Our results suggest that return to office policies can lead to an outflow of senior employees, posing a potential threat to the productivity, innovation, and competitiveness of the wider firm," the report concluded.

All I can say is: my wife coulda told you so.

This one gets a little personal, but I think in this case, that makes it more informative, not less.

My wife spent 20 years working for a major defense contractor — probably the major-ist defense contractor. If there was anything good about the COVID lockdowns, it was Melissa working from home. Not only was it easier for her (and on her car), but I enjoyed having her around all of the time. Maybe she even thought the same of me — I kid, I kid.

Two years ago, her employer instituted an RTO policy, and she resisted as best she could. The conversation with her manager went something like this:

Melissa: Did my performance suffer working from home?

Manager: No.

Melissa: Is there anything I haven't been able to get done working from home?

Manager: No.

Melissa: Is there anything you might need me to do in the future that would require me to be in the office?

Manager: No.

Melissa: So why can't I work from home?

Manager: Because reasons.

Two weeks later, Melissa had a job offer from a much smaller contractor. It included a big pay raise, responsibilities in line with her skills (that was a bigger and older issue than RTO, actually), and working from home.

Her old office pretty much blew up when she turned in her resignation. Valued employees don't often just get up and leave after 20 years. Despite all the consternation, no lesson was learned. Her old office persisted with RTO.

Here's the lesson.

Talent is highly mobile because it is highly desired. And it is not always fungible. That is, a company's most talented employees can't be easily swapped in and out like assembly line parts. If you want to keep those employees, you have to treat them with respect. That likely includes letting them work from home, provided their jobs can be done from there.

The lesson was obvious to me, someone who hasn't worked an office job in 30 years. Why the men and women in charge of America's biggest and most important firms won't learn it is an expensive mystery.

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