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While Other Industries Have Turned to the Stick, Accounting Firms Continue to Use the Carrot to Encourage RTO

abandoned office

PwC’s hybrid work policy was quite the big deal when it was announced in October 2021, it signaled perhaps a change in corporate mentality that meant employees would be allowed the discretion to determine on their own if they need to be in the office or not. Other firms took a similar approach, though their hybrid work policies weren’t as visible as PwC’s big splashy announcement. It began to look like remote work was here to stay, and all rejoiced.

But firms couldn’t be doing this solely because they trust their staff and want them to be happy. No, the Great Resignation was in full swing when the hybrid work announcements started rolling out and firms were afraid to lose people if they pushed too hard on RTO. Better then to use the carrot, let managers be the bad guy when the team absolutely must be in the office and trust educated, adult people to make appropriate choices for themselves otherwise.

In a recent Employee Benefits News piece, Frank Giampietro, chief well-being officer at EY, says that his firm continues to embrace the carrot. Though as the red hot job market cools off, we are beginning to see hints of firms contemplating the stick.

At EY, they realized that employee obligations at home were preventing some people from coming into the office. “We have a multigenerational workforce, and when we went out and talked to our folks, we discovered there was a wide variety of things getting in the way, some of which were financial. We had to remove the barriers and create opportunity,” he said. So the firm added $800 to the existing $1000 well-being fund that reimburses things like childcare, pet care, and commuting. This is the point in the article where the parents laugh heartily at the thought of $800 making even the tiniest difference in the daycare bill.

The message behind this is that great things happen when people are together in person, and the company is invested in making that a reality for employees, says Giampietro. And it’s paid off: The company saw a 150% increase in employees returning to the office in just over a year.

Citation needed.

Other firms performed the same analysis on their employees and came to the same conclusion EY did: if you help people out with costs they will now incur as a direct result of being in the office, they are more likely to come in. Accounting firms might be singlehandedly propping up the Doggy Daycare Industrial Complex.

And again, carrot:

EY has avoided mandating a return-to-work, which gives their team a more open-minded approach to the hybrid structure, Giampietro says. But to further entice employees to return, EY established “predictable flexibility” so that people could plan ahead and decide as a team when they would come into the office. Not only does this allow for in-person collaboration, but creates accountability among teammates.

“We want to try and empower people, not control them,” says Giampietro. “We consistently get folks who say, ‘I didn’t think I had any reason to have to come in and be with my team. I was getting my work done just fine. I had no idea what I was missing out on until I experienced it.’ That is really our philosophy: Give people the opportunity to experience it, and then let the experience speak for itself.”

Contrast that philosophy with the Bloomberg software engineer in this recent Fortune piece. She left New York City at the beginning of this year to care for a sick relative and was fired-but-not-fired when returning to office would be an impossibility for her.

She says Bloomberg has been trying to get people back in the office since November, at first through informal communications from managers and HR about how great face-to-face collaboration is (sound familiar?). It didn’t seem any policy was enforced, she and her team continued to work from home. Some of her colleagues had even moved away, no one seemed to bat an eyelash.

Meanwhile, she got a “glowing” performance review and a fat bonus. All seemed well.

Come February, Bloomberg got more aggressive about RTO. Says Fortune, employees were expected to use an internal system to record their location each day. And if they didn’t log in from their assigned office for those three days a week they’d get a nastygram from their manager. She informed the company of her move and said it would be impossible for her to come in three days a week, they warned her that this might be “difficult.”

“I was very frank with my manager,” she said. “I explained the situation—that it wasn’t just a personal preference but a necessity.” She says Bloomberg never said explicitly that return to office was required, nor did they communicate consequences for those who could not or would not oblige. You can guess where this is going.

She received a strongly worded letter from HR that they would fire her if she did not return to office immediately. Further, they would consider it “voluntary resignation.” She had no plans to resign and communicated as much to the company, the company went ahead and sent her termination instructions. “They are firing me but they are refusing to admit that they are firing me,” she said.

For now, we aren’t seeing this kind of wide-reaching RTO push from the big accounting firms. But the talent shortage is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, firms don’t want to scare people off. If and when layoffs come, don’t be surprised to get a few unfriendly reminders from leadership about getting your butt back in your chair. Think of all the collaboration you’re missing out on!

Is your manager passive-aggressively goading you back into the office? Let us know.