Return to the office? These workers quit instead.

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Rowan Rosenthal, a former principal product designer for Grindr, says their only option was to quit their job after the company’s return-to-office mandate. (Mary Inhea Kang for The Washington Post)

As more companies crack down on remote work, employees are pushing back with walkouts and resignations

When Rowan Rosenthal heard about Grindr’s return-to-office mandate during a virtual town hall meeting in August, anxiety, confusion and anger set in. The principal product designer lived within a 25-minute bike ride from the company’s Brooklyn office but instead was required to report to one in Los Angeles, where Rosenthal’s department was assigned. This doesn’t make sense and there’s no way this will happen, Rosenthal thought.

But it did happen. And two weeks later, Rosenthal realized that despite loving the work, the only option that made sense was to quit. That was also the case for about 45 percent of Grindr’s 178 employees, workers say.

“Honestly I felt betrayed,” said Rosenthal, who worked at Grindr for nearly three years. “I’ve poured my whole heart into advocating for the product and its users, and this is how it ends?”

As more companies enforce their office mandates, some workers are choosing to quit instead of complying and returning to the office. Even companies at the forefront of remote work during the pandemic such as Facebook parent Meta, Google, Amazon and Zoom are getting stricter about office returns. They say workers are more productive, collaborative and engaged in-person. Indeed, the percentage of remote workers in America’s workforce is declining — from 17.9 percent in 2021 to 15.2 percent in 2022, according to the latest census data.

Workers say their reasons for quitting include everything from family to commuting expenses to being required to relocate. And many workers worry that people like those with disabilities or who are primary caregivers may be left behind due to their inability to successfully work from the office.

“It’s infuriating to see this happening … especially with the narrative that workers are lazy,” Rosenthal said about the mandates. “It’s such an easy dig when so many companies with remote work have seen record profitability.”

Tell us what’s happening at your workplace.

In a letter to employees, Grindr said it assigned each department one of five hubs and that workers should return to their department’s designated office. Despite the mass exodus, the company told The Washington Post that it plans to forge ahead with its policy of two office days per week beginning in October. It is offering relocation assistance to workers who have to move.

“We are looking forward to returning to the office in a hybrid model … and further improving productivity and collaboration,” the company, which has been remote since the pandemic, said in a statement.

Tesla CEO and Twitter owner Elon Musk was among the first of the tech leaders to implement strict office return policies starting in 2022, but since then, others have followed. In June, Google updated its rules to include tracking employee badges and using office attendance as part of performance reviews. Last month, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said it likely wouldn’t work out for employees if they didn’t follow the required three-day office policy. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg similarly threatened termination for employees who didn’t come into the office three days a week as a last resort. And Zoom, the darling of the pandemic that enabled millions of people to work remotely, is asking workers who live near an office to return two days a week.

Workers are pushing back, penning letters to executives, staging walkouts and quitting despite the tight labor market.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the future of work, said about workers quitting. “By mandating these rigid policies, you’re risking your top performers and diversity. It just doesn’t make economic sense.”

Choudhury said companies should provide overall guidance that allows each to determine how they best work after analysis and feedback from workers. That’s especially important for women, whom Choudhury said are resigning in large numbers — a notion multiple surveys support.

Kisha Velazquez is one of those women. The former director of content marketing for recruiting software company Joonko said that child-care costs were simply too high. Plus, she wanted to be more present in her son’s life.

Before the pandemic, Velazquez commuted 45 minutes from New Jersey to the New York City office. Meanwhile, her husband did contract work from home and tended to their son. But during the pandemic, roles reversed after her husband landed a full-time job. But Velazquez didn’t think she’d be able to properly follow the office policy with school pickups, drop-offs and other activities, which is why Velazquez ultimately quit.

“It was an awkward position to be in because I was supposed to enforce a policy I didn’t believe in,” she said. “For me, the simple answer is give people a choice. Not everyone has the same situation.”

Choice would’ve made a big difference for Pamela Hayter, a former project manager at Amazon. After Amazon announced its return to office mandate, Hayter started an internal Slack channel to discuss people’s concerns. The channel, which also included the CEO, grew to 33,000 workers in a few months and led to them starting a petition and ultimately walking out over the new policy.

Hayter ultimately left the company in August and said at the time close to a hundred others had indicated that they also planned to quit. She says she felt forced out.

But Hayter’s concerns over the policy were personal. The mother of two had gotten divorced during the pandemic and could no longer afford the $600 in monthly tolls plus gas and parking to work from the office.

“I was devastated,” she said about ending her eight-year career at the tech giant. “I assumed Amazon would be my forever company.”

Amazon said it allows workers to make an exception request and considers them on a case-by-case basis. It also said certain roles will have exceptions to the rules, but that will be a small minority.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.)

For some workers who moved or were hired remotely during the pandemic, commuting is a nearly impossible task, they say.

Christopher Lee, a San Diego resident, took the role of senior manager of strategic marketing at UCLA Health when work was remote in 2020. But then he said workers were abruptly asked to return to the office five days a week at the end of 2021. For six months, he stayed with his parents in Orange County and commuted to Los Angeles while apartment hunting near the office. But the three-hour minimum of total commute time wore him down and the higher cost of living he’d have to pay near the office led him to quit.

“It was liberating but also a little scary,” he said.“At least I now know the next step.”

Another former Grindr employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said he also quit instead of relocating as he was hired remotely. He worries about future development of the dating app after 80 percent of engineers and large portions of other technical teams resigned during the first phase of the policy. Phase two is expected to affect more of the company’s business roles, he said.

He and his colleagues believe that the company’s move was the result of workers’ decision to unionize.

Some workers say they simply can do a better job working from home.

Elizabeth Bassett, a Houston resident and former global head of creative marketing for commodity markets intelligence firm Argus Media, said she went into the Houston office two to three days a week for two months before resigning in May 2022. Her department had been restructured multiple times, leaving her with only one report in the office and the rest in Singapore and London, which presented major scheduling challenges. Much of her day was on Zoom and her time in the office was very rarely spent engaging productively in-person. It was also hard to do focus work in the office, she said.

“All of it felt very pointless,” she said, adding that it felt somewhat performative. “The people I cared most about and worked most with weren’t there.”

As for Rosenthal, the Grindr exit allowed for new opportunity: a fully remote job at another social app.

“It’s like leaving an actual relationship,” Rosenthal said. “It feels bad, you feel hurt. Then you give yourself time to grieve, you find someone else and you get excited again.”

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