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March 21, 2024

Power, presenteeism, and productivity in the return to office debate

As an anthropologist I study patterns of behaviour and try to understand the social and cultural motivations driving those behaviours. Rather than collecting data, most of my work is about talking to people, learning their stories, and finding ways to gain insights into the rhythms of their lives in a qualitative way.

People often associate anthropologists with the study of remote, small-scale societies, but my research turns the anthropological gaze back towards the UK. In particular, I’ve been interested in the shift to remote and hybrid working, and the ‘return to office’ mandates that we’ve seen as a reaction to the increased flexibility left in the wake of the pandemic.

How did the pandemic change the way we work?

The Covid-19 pandemic created a major shift towards working from home and hybrid work. One unexpected consequence of this was not only the increased prevalence of hybrid work, but the increased acceptance of it. A key aspect of this transformation is a shifting cultural awareness of how, when, and where good work can be done (Burchell et al. 2024). Arguably, the shift to working from home has begun to challenge the flexibility stigma that placed working mothers at a disadvantage in the workplace (Williams, Blair-Loy, and Berdahl 2013).

The tech sector saw a particularly high rise of remote and hybrid work (ONS 2022). Increased work schedule flexibility is particularly important for mothers of young children, who have historically been less likely to engage in full-time employment due to the inability to fit their work with the greater childcare and housework responsibilities they often shoulder. This has been called the ‘motherhood penalty’ and has been identified as a key cause of the gender pay gap (Budig and England 2001).

Early data from US economists Harrington and Kahn shows that motherhood employment gaps narrowed in traditionally family unfriendly fields like finance and marketing due to the recent rise of WFH policies. They suggest that after the pandemic, working from home is less likely to signal a low attachment to the workforce – they also find that average income levels of mothers rose (Harrington and Kahn 2023).

Return to office mandates

However, in recent months, return to office mandates have gained in popularity. For those who haven’t come across the term, this is where management set new policies that require their employees (who had usually been given freedom over their working location) to be in the office a certain number of days per week. While some firms require one or two days, others have requested workers be back four to five days per week. A survey of 15,000 workplaces showed that more workers in the UK are back in the office 5 days per week than working from home since the pandemic – though that’s not to say we are back to pre-pandemic levels (Hays PLC 2024).

Many workplaces are encountering resistance – another survey suggests that more than a third of workers say that they would quit if they were told to return to the office (Partridge 2023). In particular, RTO mandates may have a big impact on working parents, who use hybrid work arrangements to manage childcare responsibilities. If the turn to WFH policies helped to close the gender gap caused by the motherhood penalty, RTO mandates seriously risk widening it once more.

This debate is often played out in the language of ‘productivity’. Whilst employees feel more productive at home, management thinks they are less productive. But what productivity really is, remains fuzzy and undefined, and seems to change depending on whether you are an employee or an employer.

So, what is happening here? Is this the return of pre-Covid, gendered ‘presenteeist’ norms, that may place working mothers (and any parent with care responsibilities) at a disadvantage?

There are several factors at play here, factors that move beyond the bottom line and instead are inflected by the interplay between cultural norms, organisational culture, and gendered hierarchies at work.

Recent work by organisational scholars Ding and Ma is helpful in illuminating these relationships (Ding and Ma 2024). They found:

  • A link between RTOs and poor firm performance. Firstly, they found a strong link between RTO mandates and poor firm performance. They suggest that RTOs may be an attempt by management to reassert control over their employees and to scapegoat remote working employees for poor firm performance. These RTOs come in the context of widespread and devastating tech lay-offs and restructures - productivity is high on people’s minds, and perhaps the flexibility stigma never truly disappeared, leaving hybrid workers vulnerable to accusations of low attachment to the workforce.

The distinct lack of consensus in the productivity debate could point to the fact that the debate is a proxy for the ongoing power struggle between labour and capital. Ultimately, it seems, in this power struggle, capital will always come out on top. In a difficult financial climate, where the threat of redundancy is very real, workers have no bargaining power if they are called back into the office, even if it has devastating effects on the organisation of their family life.

  • A link between RTOs and ‘powerful male CEOs’. Furthermore, the same research found evidence that RTO mandates were more likely in firms with powerful male CEOS – perhaps those emblematic of the masculine “ideal worker”, who is less likely to be expected to shoulder the burden of childcare and housework.

So, are RTOs representative of attempts by masculine-coded management to scapegoat their remote working employees’ poor firm performance? Are working mothers being penalised for taking up hybrid work arrangements and then blamed for poor productivity? This could be part of it, but I think the picture is a little bit more complicated…

The strength of weak ties

In the 70s, the sociologist Granovetter discovered that new information and opportunities are more likely to come from the so-called ‘weak ties’ in a social network than from the strong (Granovetter 1973). In his research, he found that a person was more likely to receive information about a job opportunity from friends of friends than people in their immediate network.

Researchers at Microsoft and MIT applied this theory to remote work in 2023 and found that remote workers forge very close ties with their team but have fewer ties that cut across formal business units (Yang et al. 2021). This limits the opportunities a worker has to access new information and collaborate, thus limiting opportunities to create or innovate. If innovation and creation are important to productivity and progress in the tech sector, then this may motivate efforts to bring people back in person.

However, if leadership is predominantly male or masculine-coded, with limited or no caring responsibilities, and good work is associated with long hours, bringing people back into the office takes a particular form, with a particular justification that could potentially place parents at a disadvantage.

So where does this leave us?

  1. Should we stop talking about productivity and talk about innovation instead?
  2. How do workplaces create spontaneous moments of collaboration and information exchange amongst “weak ties” that do not contribute to moments of shame for parents?
  3. How do new presenteeist cultures emerge in a hybrid workplace? How do these shape the experience of parents at work?
  4. How do we move away from a presenteeist working culture to one that values care responsibilities in the workplace, whilst acknowledging that all businesses are ultimately driven by the bottom line and shareholder interests in a fluctuating and often unstable market?

This research is ongoing but, in the continually evolving post-pandemic landscape of work culture, return to office mandates highlight the ongoing grapple for power in the labour market. The time is ripe for a reassessment of who benefits from which working arrangements, and who, as these policies continue to take hold, is at risk of being left at a disadvantage.

If you are a parent with hybrid working arrangements working in the UK tech sector and would like to share your experiences as part of this ongoing research, please contact me on

Lily Rodel is a doctoral student at The Oxford Internet Institute whose research explores the impact of the increased prevalence of hybrid work after the pandemic on family life and the experience of work for women. Lily is part of IFOW's Research Fellow network. If you are interested in joining this network, please contact us on


Budig, Michelle J., and Paula England. 2001. ‘The Wage Penalty for Motherhood’. American Sociological Review 66(2):204. doi: 10.2307/2657415.

Burchell, Brendan, Simon Deakin, Jill Rubery, and David A. Spencer. 2024. ‘The Future of Work and Working Time: Introduction to Special Issue’. Cambridge Journal of Economics 48(1):1–24. doi: 10.1093/cje/bead057.

Ding, Yuye, and Mark (Shuai) Ma. 2024. ‘Return-to-Office Mandates’. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.4675401.

Granovetter, Mark. 1973. ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’. American Journal of Sociology 78(6):1360–80.

Harrington, Emma, and Matthew Kahn. 2023. Has the Rise of Work-from-Home Reduced the Motherhood Penalty in the Labour Market?

Hays PLC. 2024. Hybrid Working Policies Are Generating Conflict between Bosses and Staff.

ONS. 2022. ‘Is Hybrid Working Here to Stay?’ Retrieved (

Partridge, Joanna. 2023. ‘More than a Third of UK Workers ‘would Quit If Told to Return to Office Full-Ti’. The Guardian, March 15.

Williams, Joan C., Mary Blair-Loy, and Jennifer L. Berdahl. 2013. ‘Cultural Schemas, Social Class, and the Flexibility Stigma: Cultural Schemas and Social Class’. Journal of Social Issues 69(2):209–34. doi: 10.1111/josi.12012.

Yang, Longqi, David Holtz, Sonia Jaffe, Siddharth Suri, Shilpi Sinha, Jeffrey Weston, Connor Joyce, Neha Shah, Kevin Sherman, Brent Hecht, and Jaime Teevan. 2021. ‘The Effects of Remote Work on Collaboration among Information Workers’. Nature Human Behaviour 6(1):164–164. doi: 10.1038/s41562-021-01228-z.


Lily Rodel


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