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Help! My employer is suddenly requiring a return to office. Should I quit?

First, ask: Why the change after two years of successful remote work? Engineering manager Leemay Nassery advises in this edition of The Lossless Leader.

Back to ... this? (Photo by Pexels user Pixabay via a Creative Commons license)

This is The Lossless Leader, an advice column written by engineering manager Leemay Nassery.

Why call it The Lossless Leader? An engineering leader is someone who inspires their team, communicates well, grows their people to become leaders themselves, removes blockers or painful aspects of their team’s day-to-day, delivers on product requests and so much more. In tech, lossless compression is a technique that does not lose any data in the compression process; it reduces the size of files without losing any information in the file so quality is maintained.

Combining the two: Leaders aren’t perfect. Sometimes they manage to not lose any data while leading their org, and other times it may seem like they’re losing it altogether. This column is called The Lossless Leader because we all admire those leaders who strive to stay true to who they are and the people they serve (their team). They admit fault when necessary, learn from their mistakes and sometimes flourish in difficult situations — all while not losing themself along the way.

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The question:

“My company recently communicated a return to office policy, with very little notice. We now have to be in the office for three days of the week after over two years of working from home. In case it isn’t obvious, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working from home. What should I do? Should I quit?”

The answer: 

Oh no! I imagine the question of returning to office (RTO) has been top of mind for awhile, especially if the policy was unclear until now.

There are two types of companies — the companies that are committed to providing a flexible working policy, and the inconsistent companies where you feel like they’ll modify the policy with a drop of a hammer. For the latter, it’s an uneasy feeling. You’re really unsure of what the future looks like. But a company that allows their employees to select their working location easily stands out. The flexibility to decide whether you work from home or office affects your well-being.

Ask leadership: Why is in-person work suddenly required?

My first suggestion is to see if you can get a reason for why there is a sudden increased value in working in the office. Did they provide communication as to why you should be in the office three out of five days? What work do you do that requires being present in the office? For example, do you need to be in the office for better collaboration? If so, I agree with part of that sentiment. I think it does make a big difference if a team has a few in-person days every quarter or so — but not necessarily every week.

Or is the reasoning for more surveillance and increased output? If this were the case for RTO,  it’s seriously unlikely anyone in leadership would admit to it. If you even get the slightest inkling that this is the case, then they are totally reading the wrong leadership book (or following the wrong “thought leaders” on Twitter). If you can’t trust your people to work from home after this paradigm shift the past two years, then I can’t imagine how output could magically improve by forcing employees to come back into the office.

This is all to say, try to find out why first. It may not change your decision on how to move forward, but it would at least give you some clarity and context.

Should you quit if you’re required to work from the office?

As for your biggest question, I can’t answer that without more information. But I can roll the tapes and play this forward to provide additional insights.

If the policy is unlikely to change, for whatever reason, know that other companies are still hiring even with the reported layoffs that span Twitter on a weekly basis. First, see what’s out there. Get on LinkedIn. Then update your resume. Take it day by day.

While taking these baby steps, please do assess your appetite for risk. Pivoting during this economic climate, with many companies having entered a hiring freeze, may be above your risk threshold. It’s not impossible to get a new job, but there is a bit more uncertainty at play here. My opinion: Don’t let short-term fear get in the way of longer-term happiness. At least, know that there is no harm in simply putting your resume out there and seeing what the interview landscape looks like.

Now, if you generally enjoy your job or have circumstances that prevent you from leaving, then it really comes down to knowing how strictly this is going to be enforced, and then figuring out what you can get away with. One scenario that could play into your favor is a decision to revert the RTO policy. It’s certainly possible that after a few months, the office returns to a “ghost office” state, where just a few individuals are coming in. This could also happen if there’s a realization that folks are just dialing into Zoom calls from the office, especially if the policy isn’t widely followed.

The value of remote work

As you reflect and decide how you’ll proceed forward, it’s worth noting how this decision is a reflection of the company culture. The RTO vibe that your company is putting out into the world will certainly attract (and detract) a particular type of talent.

I have the luxury of working at a company that has a flexible work policy. There really isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful to work at such a company, which ultimately results in more appreciation for my job and an increased output. With this personal sentiment, I find it so bizarre that companies would enforce RTO instead of an opt-in strategy, especially as there are literally countries that have passed laws that make work from home a legal right.

The wording of that last sentence was mindfully selected as foreshadowing of the song for this post – OMC’sHow Bizarre,” because I really think it is so bizarre to require employees to RTO.

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Series: The Lossless Leader

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