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How this corporate building's return-to-office campaign backfired spectacularly

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A corporate building's return-to-office campaign is uniting the internet, but for all the wrong reasons.

This week, Nova Scotia-based freelance writer and labor activist Audra Williams saw photos circulating online of welcome back signs that poked fun at returning office workers missing their work-from-home comforts. One sign asks "Miss your sweatpants yet?" while another includes a photo of a forlorn golden retriever and reads "Bet your dog is missing you."

Williams posted the photos to Twitter, noting: "In the lobby of an office building in Toronto. I guess to make sure employees are flooded with resentment the instant they walk in the door?"

The resentment did pour in — at least from different corners of the internet as thousands of Twitter users chimed in about how the jokes missed the mark.

Some said they would quit on the spot if they saw the ads in their office building, while others expressed resentment that they've been ordered to return to offices even though, in meetings, they see their managers remain remote.

Others, still, counted the ways working from home has improved their lives, like simply having control over their coffee, bathroom or break times.

Williams tells CNBC Make It she's been "heartened by the response" to the tweet, which has reached 12 million people online, and is a glimpse into how people are feeling as executives announce their latest round of return-to-office plans.

"Employees have had a break from unpaid commutes, workplace microaggressions and time away from loved ones, including pets," Williams says. "And so if you know why your employees don't want to be there, and you're taunting them for it — watching staff realize that they don't have to put up with is pretty joyous."

Williams says she has seen Twitter users across political spectrums, and even a handful of commercial real estate professionals, call out the campaign. "Whether you think it's a bad campaign because you think it's not going to sell offices, or because you think property is theft, we all agree this is a bad campaign," she says. "So that unified Twitter for a day."

Oxford Properties, the commercial real estate company that ran the welcome back campaign, said in a statement to CNBC Make It the signage was never intended to mock returning office workers. The company removed the signs last week, admitting they "clearly missed the mark and should not have been displayed. We are dismayed to think that the signs made anyone feel bad about going to the office."

It's about more than just returning to offices

Williams believes companies pushing RTO on reluctant workers don't understand that remote work isn't just a matter of comfort or preference, but that people are highlighting how traditional work structures have always been unaccommodating. "If working from home is making problems for your company, you should try to solve the problems," she says. "And if you need the team to come in, you should find out why they don't want to and then see if you can address those concerns."

Workplace experts have stressed leaders must approach issues of hybrid work and RTO with an intersectional lens. Reports throughout the pandemic show historically marginalized workers who are women, caregivers, Black, LGBTQIA, disabled and from other underrepresented groups tend to favor remote over in-office work.

And given high turnover in the job market, Williams believes employers should instead take the opportunity to reimagine work to "win employees over, and it's not going to be pizza parties and beer cart Fridays — it's going to be more money, better managers, shorter workweeks, career development opportunities and improved benefit packages."

Office reopenings enter a new phase

Elsewhere, RTO plans are back in the news with tech giants Twitter, Google and Apple announcing office reopenings in the coming weeks. Together, these companies are some of the most influential employers in the world and have set a precedent on a number of pandemic-related shifts in how and where people work.

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden wrote a letter to federal workers and addressed Americans in his State of the Union that it's time to return to offices as Covid cases decline. "It's time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again," Biden said.

Meanwhile, more people are choosing to work from home because they want to, even if their office is open and they're less concerned about Covid risks, according to new findings from Pew Research Center.

"People are making a conscious choice to work from home, rather than just out of necessity," says Kim Parker, Pew's director of social trends research. As more workers choose to stay home, companies will have to be especially careful in how they welcome people back.

Check out: Why it's so satisfying to watch people complain about their jobs on TikTok

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