January 12, 2024

Want more On the Margins? Check out our archive.


I spent a good part of 2023 writing words in this newsletter about the debate between return-to-office and work-from-home-slash-hybrid-slash-remote policies. I’d like to write about it less in 2024, and that would require the RTO and WFH camps to split their differences, but who knows if that’ll happen. What I do know is that there’s a lot of talk about people being unhappy at work, but the reality is that most people are just fine. And that’s fine! Fine is fine. I think the continued availability of remote-hybrid work has, in part, made that possible.

People probably won’t be fine if more employers force people to come back to the office. I say this as a person who mostly works from an office and am sympathetic to its benefits. But ignoring the benefits and popularity of remote and hybrid work will not go over well. Yet, that sure looks like what some employers are determined to do under the premise of productivity, innovation, profitability, etc.  

A recent Business Insider article reported on a new study from the University of Pittsburgh that looked at RTO policies announced by S&P 500 companies, and the findings are a little awkward for the zealous RTO camp:

“One of the most common arguments management suggests is that they want to return to office because employee productivity is low at home, and they believe returns to office would help firms improve performance and ultimately improve the firm’s value,” [Mark] Ma, [an associate professor of business administration from Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business] told BI. “That’s the reason they give — but our results actually do not support these arguments.”

Those results essentially are: the innovation and collaboration stuff is legit, but requiring workers to be in the office basically gives all of that back in the actual costs—parking, rent, catering, etc. In short, the arguments for RTO don’t hold up under serious scrutiny.

Then there’s a line of argument—a pretty cynical one—from the pro-WFH camp that says RTO is all about managers—mostly male, mostly white—wanting to control workers, flexibility and quality of life be damned. These arguments also suggest that the most enthusiastic return-to-office supporters are those who succeeded by going into the office

“That’s how I did it; that’s the model of success that others should follow, too. And I know because I’m successful,” is how it might be characterized, again, in a somewhat cynical fashion (which happens to be my specialty).

So it’s interesting to note that the University of Pittsburgh study discovered that the cynicism is well founded!

In putting the “controlling manager” theory to the test, Ma expected to find more return-to-office mandates implemented by higher-profile managers in S&P 500 companies.

“And that’s indeed what we found,” Ma said. “We found RTO mandates are more common among male CEOs and more powerful CEOs. So that’s consistent with these managers using RTO mandates to reassert control.”

It doesn’t get better from there. The data shows that public companies that announced their RTO plans have lower stock performance—“Like, really bad stock returns during the pandemic.”—which might suggest that these companies are scapegoating WFH for their underperformance.

Beyond that, the companies that are requiring workers to be in the office are doing so through various methods of tracking attendance—including one study that says 80% of companies will track RTO—which is not a good look. With that kind of trend, you can reasonably assume that “Corporate Truant Officer” will be one of the most in-demand jobs in America in 2024.

Call it a hunch, but tracking attendance and other policies could create a level of management surveillance that a lot of people will resent to the point of profound bitterness—pretty much the precise opposite of fine. 

This will be an insufferable year. I say that as an optimist. But I’m hopeful that this debate—RTO versus Remote-Hybrid—will be one that finds a middle ground. Finding middle ground is virtually impossible in American culture right now; the extremes suck up all the oxygen in the room, and any failure to pass purity tests is hardly tolerated. 

But business seems like the one arena where compromise is still possible. And despite the intensity of the extreme arguments about RTO and WFH, the results are not zero-sum. Both employers and employees can and would benefit from a compromise. And compromise is the epitome of fine.

Too many clients > Not enough accountants

The dearth of accountants has been a perennial issue going back several years now. It doesn’t seem to be a problem that most firms have been able to solve, and I don’t expect them to figure it out this year. Again, I say this as an optimist. 

Anyway, over at my old stomping grounds, Adrienne Gonzalez noted the recent survey results from CPA Trendlines that found that 42% of accounting firms are turning down work due to staff shortages. 

Now, the conventional analysis of that stat might be, “Geez, that’s not good,” but there’s another way to look at it too:

Why does this profession think that there ought to be no client left behind. [sic] This profession isn’t a public school. We should have waiting lists for new clients. We should dump about half our clients and charge 150% more than we are charging now. Then we could afford to pay staff more.

Hard to disagree. A while back, I asked: what are accountants lying to themselves about? I’d argue that they’re definitely lying to themselves about this. It’s simply not sustainable for any firm to do everything in its power to keep all the clients they have and keep trying to win more of them, especially when they don’t have the people necessary to do the job.

Plus, doesn’t “dump about half our clients and charge 150% more than we are charging now [so] we could afford to pay staff more” sounds like a winner of a New Year’s resolution? Put it on your firm’s busy season t-shirts. Oh, you don’t have busy season t-shirts? Well, now you do.

Fresh from Gusto


New to Gusto? Our on-demand webinar, Grow with Gusto: Next Steps for Your Practice, is here for you. If you’re new to the Gusto Partner Program and wondering what’s next, this session is for you. Editor-at-Large Caleb Newquist and Gusto representatives will discuss FAQs, considerations, and recommendations on what to do next. Register and watch now.

Read with Gusto

Visit Gusto Academy—your home for professional development from payroll to People Advisory—to get Certified, take electives, and earn CPE credits. Free for Gusto partners.

Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
Back to top