‘It’s a layoff wolf in return-to-office sheep’s clothing’


John Stankey, CEO of AT&T, told 60,000 managers last month they had to return to the office starting in July. But there was a caveat: AT&T owns 350 offices in the U.S., and the workers would have to report to one of just nine consolidated locations. That means workers in other states would have to move—or quit.

“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 at the time. “Others may decide, given the station of life they are in, that they want to move in a different direction.”

That may be underselling it. On the inside, workers told Bloomberg this week they think Stankey’s mandate is a covert attempt to trim the workforce—without actually having to stomach the bad press of layoffs. “It’s a layoff wolf in return-to-office sheep’s clothing,” an AT&T manager anonymously said. (An AT&T spokesperson did not immediately respond to a Fortune request for comment.)

AT&T’s move seems to be the synthesis of many workers’ worst-case scenarios: a compulsory return to the office, and the threat of losing the job. Leaders like Stankey (as well as Google’s Sundar Pichai, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff) are flexing their leverage and doubling down on in-person work, workers’ preferences be damned. Many are also contributing to the historic number of layoffs as they look to downsize after overhiring during the era of remote work. AT&T’s mandate is a subtle way of doing both, workers say.

“This shift in favor of worker power is happening in the context of massive layoffs by tech companies, which are becoming less willing to offer perks like remote work,” Gleb Tsipursky, author and CEO of future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, wrote for Fortune in March. “In fact, there’s evidence that some companies are using return-to-office mandates to get workers to quit voluntarily so they can avoid paying severance.”

For his part, Stankey, who’s been with AT&T for nearly four decades, believes the in-office push is necessary for the company “to get the right people doing similar functions in the right places.” But most workers side with Tsipursky’s reasoning, and many are incensed by the needless action.

As one Reddit commenter pointed out, even if a manager lives within a three-hour drive of their assigned office hub, they’d still have to make that commute at least 75% of the workweek. Stankey’s decision, they went on, appears “to be a way to force a chunk of the workforce to quit rather than be fired (which would require severance), because logically [it] makes no sense.”

Plus, the commenter added, this summer is a particularly difficult time to force people to relocate. The housing market is dire and interest rates are sky-high, particularly in the suburbs around the AT&T major city office hubs. “Be careful out there,” they wrote. “AT&T cares nothing about their workers and it might cause a ripple effect on their services overall.”

Who is a return to office mandate for?

Stankey’s decision shouldn’t have come as a complete shock. AT&T periodically trims its headcount in a move it calls “surplussing,” a representative told Bloomberg. Just since the pandemic, a multibillion-dollar cost-cutting effort resulted in laying off nearly 70,000 employees.

Perhaps as a result, AT&T workers in particular have strongly resisted return-to-office measures for over a year. Last August, workers actually filed a Change.org petition against the move. Many managers supported the refusal to return to work, citing childcare and elder care needs and a desire for more flexibility. “There was some sympathy. But clearly it’s a different sentiment in the towers high above us,” Kieran Knutson, an AT&T call center worker for almost two decades and organizer of the petition, told Fortune.

A new office location—with insufficient parking—meant a three-hour round-trip commute for Suzette Belhumeur, a California-based engineering administrator for AT&T. “If my quality of life deteriorates because of this, so will my work,” she wrote last year beneath her petition signature. “How can I provide quality service if I’m stressed and unhappy?”

AT&T workers will know whether they’re impacted by the end of the month, Bloomberg reported, and move-by dates for those who will be assigned a new location are still to come. In the interim, company morale has been decimated, and workers are rushing to consider their options.

Perhaps the writing has long been on the wall. A 2022 study by AT&T itself said hybrid work will be the primary working model by 2024—100% of senior executive respondents said it would be crucial for attracting young talent.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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