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June 23, 2023

AT&T's RTO Plan: A Covert Layoff Strategy?

Employees at AT&T are divided over the company's return-to-office (RTO) requirement, which calls for 60,000 managers to physically report to work at a smaller number of offices. This directive was announced in May by the telecom company, which has 350 locations distributed throughout all 50 states, startling many employees who had been working remotely since the outbreak began. The directive mandates that managers move to one of the nine selected office locations; else, they risk being fired.1

This action is being perceived by the workforce as a covert layoff technique; one manager even called it a "layoff wolf in return-to-office sheep's clothing." Team leaders give locations to a few hubs focusing on particular responsibilities in what is perceived as a high-stakes game of musical chairs throughout the transition. Although the restructure may result in large real estate savings and maybe improve collaboration, many employees are now faced with lengthy commutes or relocations, which has caused considerable unhappiness and worry.1 2

Employees at AT&T have stated that they believe the RTO mandate is an underhanded effort to reduce the staff without having to deal with the bad press that comes with layoffs. The new arrangement is seen as a combination of many workers' worst-case scenarios, including being forced to return to work and facing the possibility of losing their jobs.

The RTO mandate is taking place at a time when worker power is shifting, with many tech businesses becoming less inclined to provide benefits like remote work and initiating mass layoffs. Some people think that businesses use return-to-office requirements to incentivize employees to leave on their own, avoiding the need to pay severance. The decision has been justified by AT&T CEO John Stankey, who claims that the corporation needs to have the proper employees performing similar tasks in the right locations. However, the majority of employees appear to agree that the mandate is an unnecessary step, and many have expressed their dissatisfaction with it.2

Additionally, the mandate raises logistical problems. A manager residing within a three-hour drive of their designated office hub, for instance, would still need to make that travel for at least 75% of the workweek, according to one Reddit user. The user continued by stating that it appears the move was made in an effort to get a sizable section of the workers to resign rather than be dismissed, which would have required severance pay. Forcible relocations are made more challenging by the current situation of the housing market and high loan rates, particularly in the suburbs surrounding the designated AT&T office hubs.2

The action is not wholly unexpected, notwithstanding the criticism. Since the pandemic started, AT&T has reduced its workforce through a process it calls "surplussing" and put off over 70,000 workers in an effort to save costs. AT&T employees complained about the return-to-office policies in a Change.org petition last year, citing the need for child and elder care as well as a need for more flexibility. Many managers encouraged employees not to come back to work, suggesting a gulf between employee opinions and those of the decision-makers.

Other issues have also been brought up by the shifting office locations. Suzette Belhumeur, an AT&T engineering administrator stationed in California, for instance, complains that the new office location's inadequate parking causes her to travel three hours each way. As she put it, "How can I provide quality service if I'm stressed and unhappy?" she expressed concern about how her declining quality of life was affecting her employment.​2

The long-term effects of this decision on AT&T's staff are still unknown.