When a memo from Elon Musk demanding Tesla executives return to the office or find another place to work leaked earlier this month, a tsunami of commentary swiftly followed (including here on Inc.com). Most of it centered on the question of whether the policy was dumb or brilliant.
A new survey from professors at Stanford and Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México suggests perhaps more experts should have weighed in on another angle of the story. What should Musk -- and other bosses do -- if a huge proportion of the workforce flat out refuses to comply with return-to-the-office requirements?
Workers' passive-aggressive response to in-person work requirements
Employees have been complaining about employers' efforts to nudge, cajole, and outright force them to return to the office for months now. But when push comes to shove (as it had recently at Tesla), how many are actually willing to give in and come back to in-person work? Stanford remote work expert Nick Bloom and his longtime collaborator Jose Maria Barrero recently conducted a survey to find out.
The results should serve as a warning to leaders planning to simply strong-arm their teams into returning to in-person work. When Bloom and Barrero asked employees whether they had complied with their employers' in-person work requirements over the past week, an incredible 48.5 percent of those whose bosses want them in five days a week said no. Compliance rose gradually to 84.2 percent among those only required to be in the office one day a week.
That last number doesn't sound too bad for employers, but as Bloom commented, "pre-pandemic, if you had only about 80 percent of employees come in on any given day, you'd have a terrible problem."
And there are other reasons in-person hardliners like Musk might be concerned if somewhere between a fifth and a half of workers are flat out refusing to return to some level of in-person work. "The people they will lose because they refuse to come to the office will mostly be people they might want to keep," Bloom noted on Twitter. "Research generally finds hybrid-WFH is associated with higher performance."
Don't be the dad threatening to turn the car around
All of which suggests employers desperate to herd people back to the office are facing a conundrum. Much like parents who threaten to turn the car around when the kids in the back seat are misbehaving, actually following through on those threats is going to be exceedingly painful for everyone if these new figures are to be believed.
Which is probably why Bloom and Barrero also found that, when faced with employee intransigence, many leaders are choosing to simply ignore workers' noncompliance. More than 42 percent of bosses are simply ignoring defiant employees. Much smaller percentages are resorting to a grab bag of disciplinary steps like verbal reprimands (14 percent), negative performance reviews (10 percent), reduction in pay (15 percent), and threats to terminate (12 percent).
Parents lose credibility when they make empty threats. So do business leaders. If you're going to demand a return to full-time in-person work, you had better be committed to the policy and have a plan in place to deal with employees who flat-out refuse to comply, because this survey suggests you are likely to meet with fierce resistance. So much fierce resistance that, unless you're looking for an excuse to severely trim head count, you're unlikely to be able to fire your way out of the problem.
For Bloom's part, he counsels bosses to set more realistic expectations. "Returning all WFH employees to the office five days a week looks almost impossible," he opined on LinkedIn. "Firms should aim for something moderate and succeed, rather than aim for a five-day return and fail."
Take his wisdom to heart or brace yourself for a full-on battle with employees.