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Disney employees fight mandate to work at offices four days a week

A petition asking CEO Bob Iger to rethink the policy has more than 2,300 signatures

Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg News)
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Corporate employees at Walt Disney Co. are pushing back against a mandate to return to offices four days a week starting in March, according to a petition shared with The Washington Post, setting up another high-profile clash over flexible work.

More than 2,300 employees signed the petition asking CEO Bob Iger to reconsider the mandate, which ranks among the strictest for big companies in the post-pandemic era, arguing that it is “likely to have unintended consequences that cause long-term harm to the company.” The signees include workers across Disney’s stable of businesses, including ABC, 20th Century Studios, Marvel Studios, Hulu, Pixar, FX and others.

Disney employs more than 200,000 people in total.

The new mandate, employees argued in the petition, will lead to “forced resignations among some of our most hard-to-replace talent and vulnerable communities” while “dramatically reducing productivity, output, and efficiency.”

“This policy will slow, or even reverse, our post-COVID recovery and growth by creating critical resource shortages and causing irreplaceable institutional knowledge loss,” employees wrote.

There has been no response from the company about the petition since it was submitted to upper management last week. Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

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Disney was among a handful of corporate giants such as General Motors and Starbucks that asked employees to spend more time in the office in the new year, and there have been some signs that such requests are working: Earlier this month, U.S. office occupancy broke 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels for the first time, according to data tracked by Kastle Systems across 10 of the country’s top metro areas. But occupancy has fallen in recent weeks, and many experts think this could be the new normal.

The tug-of-war over how work is done has dominated dialogue between employers and employees in the post-pandemic landscape. Some employees have resisted hard mandates to return: They’ve left for remote opportunities elsewhere or even flouted in-office requirements, flexing worker leverage while the labor market remains hot. But employers have regained some power in recent months as rising layoffs threaten job security; Disney announced last week it would slash 7,000 positions as it cuts costs and overhauls its corporate structure.

“This is a standoff, like an old-fashioned cowboy standoff right now,” said Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources consultant in Raleigh, N.C. “I would not dare workers to choose between returning to the office and their jobs, because they may learn to live with a little less in the long- term.”

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As they pull employees back to offices, employers are leaning on claims about waning productivity and collaboration without offering much evidence, Ruettimann said. Employees are feeling “betrayed.”

“Workers feel like they did a really good job of demonstrating trust and showing up during the pandemic,” Ruettimann said. “Coming back to the office through a mandate seems punitive, and it certainly isn’t something most workers were consulted on.”

Disney employees were not consulted on the mandate, according to an employee who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the potential impact of the policy.

“I think everyone has adjusted really well to the flexibility at Disney that was rolled out during the pandemic,” the employee told The Washington Post. “For that to all go away suddenly was really scary for a lot of people."

When the policy was announced last month, Iger argued that more in-person work would be beneficial for “the Company’s creativity, culture, and our employees’ careers.” But the petition cites testimonials from employees suggesting that some feel effectively “forced out” by the request to come in more frequently; others plan to voluntarily resign if it goes into effect. Employees were required to come in two or three days a week under the existing hybrid program, similar to arrangements at other media giants such as NBCUniversal and Warner Bros.

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Many concerns raised by employees highlight the general challenges companies are facing in adapting to hybrid work schedules, which had become the dominant mode for remote-capable workers as of November, according to data from Gallup.

The petition asks Iger to allow remote work for employees who want it, and to invest more heavily in technology and training to make collaboration and asynchronous work easier. But it also asks the company to do more to bring employees together in-person through networking, training and town hall events.

“Sitting on Zoom calls in an office for four days a week while your co-workers, partners, stakeholders, vendors, and customers do the same in a different part of the world does not meet the core need,” the petition says. “There is value in being together, but we also need to look forward and embrace new paradigms that add value.”

Employees’ lives have changed drastically in the past few years, petitioners argue, saying that the stricter return to office policy would disturb workers’ ability to get their jobs done and balance their lives outside work.

More than 400 of the testimonials submitted with the petition came from parents. Others came from employees who describe themselves as neurodivergent — with conditions such as attention-deficit, autism, dyslexia, or other neurological differences — and workers with disabilities who worry that spending more time in the office would take a toll on them.

The employee who spoke to The Post said they hope that Iger and other leaders at Disney will hear out workers’ perspectives on how the flexibility has improved their lives.

“Flexibility at Disney really felt like a fresh start,” they said. “Now it feels like we’re moving backwards.”