AT&T, the country’s largest telecommunications company, is slashing its office footprint and asking more than 60,000 managers to return to offices at least three days a week starting in July, a move that reflects the corporate world’s ongoing push to reestablish the office as the center of work.
As AT&T, which currently has operations in every U.S. state, consolidates into nine core offices, with two hubs in Atlanta and Dallas, the return-to-office mandate means that some workers will need to relocate to keep their jobs.
The push to bring workers back to offices has been unfolding since 2021, and many knowledge workers have already made the transition. As the labor market cools and layoffs have risen, another wave of leaders are using their leverage to get workers back in the same place, even as employees signal that they’re keen on keeping the flexibility that became common during the pandemic.
The company declined to discuss the decision with The Washington Post. AT&T chief executive John Stankey said Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg Radio that 85 percent of the company’s corporate employees already live within commuting distance of one of these locations. For the remaining 15 percent, “if they want to be a part of building a great culture and environment, they’ll come along on these adjustments and changes,” Stankey said. “Others may decide, given the station of life they are in, that they want to move in a different direction.”
AT&T has “generous” relocation services, Stankey told Bloomberg, a benefit that has been on the rise as companies seek to bring workers back to offices more frequently. But employee willingness to move for a job is minimal, according to data from Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The firm has been surveying workers on relocation since 1986. In the first quarter of 2023, just 1.6 percent of workers said they had moved for a new job, the lowest rate the survey has ever found.
The number of employees willing to relocate has been trending down for years, but the bottoming-out is “clearly a sign that employees do have options on remote work, or at least hybrid work, that doesn’t require them to relocate right now,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Return-to-office mandates are usually accompanied by declarations from executives about the need to be together for collaboration and a strong company culture. But mandates don’t necessarily achieve these effects on their own, according to Cali Williams Yost, a flexible-work strategist.
“It actually doesn’t solve the fundamental, underlying problem, which is, how do we plan the in-person interactions that actually have meaningful impact on the business and people?” Yost said. “Just defining the days you need to come into the office does not do that.”
Managers have been among workers most affected by return-to-office policies, with some corporate giants such as JPMorgan Chase recently asking managers to come into offices five days a week.
“Our leaders play a critical role in reinforcing our culture and running our businesses,” the bank’s operating committee wrote in an April memo announcing the decision, according to Reuters. “They have to be visible on the floor, they must meet with clients, they need to teach and advise, and they should always be accessible for immediate feedback and impromptu meetings.”
When it comes to returning to the office, leaders tend to cite the same advantages, including more opportunities for innovation and collaboration, stronger company culture and a benefit to downtown areas, which have been struggling to rebound from pandemic shifts. There’s also the impact to careers, with some executives, such as IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, telling employees that working remotely could limit their opportunities for advancement.
Some things must “be done sitting side by side,” Stankey told Bloomberg. “When we started to ask ourselves what kind of work we need to do, and how people needed to work with one another, the management team, the leadership, sat down and said, ‘This is what we think needs to happen.’”
The return-to-office mandate will take effect at the hubs in July and apply to other offices — including Los Angeles, Seattle, St. Louis and San Ramon, Calif. — by Sept. 4.
Companies have faced logistical challenges in shifting back to offices. Some, such as Amazon, brought workers back even as buildings were months away from being fully equipped to handle the influx of employees, according to reporting from Insider.
Mandates to return to offices have been met with frustration from employees who feel they have benefited from pandemic-era flexibility. Workers at companies such as Disney and Apple organized petitions pushing back on requests to return to offices, arguing that doing so would impinge on their productivity, mental health and work-life balance.
Currently, hybrid work is reigning as the dominant model for knowledge workers as companies navigate post-pandemic work norms, with more than 52 percent of remote-capable workers operating under hybrid schedules as of February, according to Gallup’s hybrid-work indicator.