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The Return to Office and the Persistence of Attendance: A Controversial Metric

As organizations grapple with the transition back to office work, the concept of showing up in person has taken on a renewed significance, reminiscent of school days where attendance was paramount. Employers have tried various incentives, such as free meals, concerts, and on-site yoga, to entice employees back to the office, albeit with mixed results. However, some are now resorting to a more drastic measure: tying office attendance to employee performance evaluations.

Both Google and JPMorgan have informed their staff that office attendance will influence performance reviews. Davis Polk, a US law firm, has gone as far as connecting fewer office days with reduced bonuses. Meta and Amazon have also implemented attendance monitoring through badge swipes, with potential repercussions for non-compliance, including job loss. This shift towards office attendance as a performance metric is becoming more widespread across various industries.

The persistence of attendance as a crucial metric may not be surprising, given that we’ve been conditioned to believe in its significance since our school days. Perfect attendance is still regarded as an honor in many educational settings. Moreover, the emphasis on attendance has been deeply ingrained in workplace culture for decades, with remote work being a rare exception prior to the pandemic. However, the question arises: What is the true essence of work? Is it about completing tasks efficiently, or is it about appearing busy?

Many companies defend the mandate for in-person work by emphasizing the value of physical collaboration, citing research suggesting that remote work can hinder teamwork and innovation. Stanford University organizational psychologist Robert Sutton explains that people tend to be more innovative and collaborative when working together physically, making it rational for employers to insist on physical presence.

Preserving corporate culture and identity is another consideration. Companies take pride in their unique management styles and values, and the physical presence of employees is seen as essential for maintaining cultural cohesion. However, workplace consultant Bruce Daisley argues that this reliance on attendance may reflect a deeper insecurity among employers who feel a loss of control and are attempting to regain it.

For some employees, mandatory attendance policies can be particularly burdensome. Those with young children, disabilities, or long commutes face greater challenges associated with in-office work, including logistical and emotional hurdles. Daisley emphasizes that flexibility, or the lack thereof, is indeed a diversity and inclusion issue.

The resurgence of attendance policies is disappointing for workers who found more flexible arrangements during the pandemic to be beneficial. Remote and hybrid work arrangements have contributed to increased job satisfaction and productivity among parents, and higher labor force participation among women with young children. Similarly, remote work can remove barriers and reduce stigma for individuals with disabilities, as indicated by recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite mounting evidence supporting remote work’s effectiveness and its potential to enhance diversity and inclusion, many organizations continue to emphasize attendance. Workers often feel compelled to comply with attendance mandates to secure job stability and career prospects. Proximity bias, the tendency to favor physically present workers, further reinforces the belief that in-person employees are more productive or committed.

However, some employees are pushing back against these mandates. A significant number of American workers are opting not to return to offices full time, even when required. This resistance could result in a culture of surveillance and distrust, undermining collaboration and morale. Employers may find that rigid attendance requirements have unintended consequences.

Beyond employees, other groups are also questioning the relevance of attendance policies, particularly in today’s context. Parents and educators are advocating for a reduced emphasis on attendance in measuring success, while some argue that perfect attendance rewards should be abolished. Law professor Jay Sterling Silver suggests that mandatory attendance should be phased out, as it can distort the true measurement of performance.

Stubbornly clinging to mandatory office attendance may lead to missed opportunities, reduced productivity, and lower employee satisfaction. Daisley concludes that employers who prioritize physical presence over actual performance may be falling into a counterproductive trap, overlooking the evolving nature of work.