A hot potato: If working from home leads to happy, more productive employees and saves companies money in office space, parking, etc., why are so many firms implementing strict Return-To-Office (RTO) policies? According to new research, the answer could be one that many people already suspected: controlling, narcissistic bosses.

RTO policies have become one of the most divisive subjects in the tech industry. Many companies promised that the lockdown-era work-from-home orders would remain in place permanently, but most have gone back on their word with giants such as Amazon and Roblox telling staff to get back or get lost.

Bosses cite several factors for wanting their workers back: collaboration, better relationships with co-workers, socialization, etc. But the word most of them like to throw about is "productivity." As in, workers are supposedly less productive while at home.

According to a recent study published by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh (via Business Insider), the real reason behind the RTO policies is mostly due to the controlling nature of bosses and CEOs.

Now read: Why your boss really wants you back in the office

The report looked at a sample of Standard and Poor's 500 firms, examining the consequences of RTO mandates. It found that the low productivity argument didn't hold up when comparing companies' performance before and after they implemented RTO policies. One would expect better employee productivity would lead to a firm's financials or stock value improving, but this wasn't the case.

Even if an employee is more productive in the office, the associated costs of bringing them back, such as office space, can mitigate those positive effects.

"So, on average, if we take a look at all these benefits and the expense average, the net benefit is really close to zero," Mark Ma, an associate professor of business administration from Pitt's Katz Graduate School of Business, who led the study, told BI. "That's what our studies are suggesting."

This discovery led to the team delving deeper into why companies really want employees back in the office. The biggest factor is believed to be managers/CEOs using RTOs to reassert control over employees. This can make superiors feel more secure about their own jobs and careers – some may feel threatened when there are no workers to order about.

The team tested the theory by looking at companies in the S&P with higher-profile managers, confirming that RTO policies are more common in these firms. Elon Musk is one CEO who has made his feelings on working from home clear for years, previously demanding his employees get back to the office for a minimum of 40 hours per week or find work elsewhere.

Ma believes CEOs are very narcissistic, something that is hard to argue with. He thinks they were losing power after the pandemic as employees became more aware of their rights, which led to bosses wanting to pull workers back under their direct control.

The research also found that work-from-home employees can offer managers a scapegoat to explain a company's poor performance. In January last year, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff partly blamed new employees hired during the pandemic who were working from home for the firm's lack of performance and productivity.

It's estimated that 90% of companies will want employees back in the office this year, with 28% threatening to fire those who fail to comply. But with RTO policies prompting workers to quit - especially at Amazon – making those who do stay depressed, and causing many companies to actually lose money, controlling bosses seems like a fairly plausible explanation for their implementation.

Masthead: Andrea Piacquadio