Mark Zuckerberg’s new return-to-office mandate is a clear problem, says Harvard expert: It’ll cause a ‘huge amount of distrust’

Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives at federal court in San Jose, California, on Dec. 20, 2022.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The latest twist in Meta's return-to-office saga doesn't reflect well on CEO Mark Zuckerberg, says a Harvard University expert.

The tech giant's new mandate for full-time employees reportedly includes three in-office days per week, the use of employee badge swipes for attendance tracking and a requirement for workers to display their physical locations at all times.

Meta established a widely encompassing remote-work policy in 2021, before announcing its intention to move toward a hybrid schedule in June. It didn't lay out the policy's details until last week, according to a company memo obtained by Insider, which stated that the new rules will go into effect on Sept. 5.

Employees can still apply for full-time remote status, the memo noted.

Still, the whiplash caused by so many policy changes in such a short period of time is likely to cause a "huge amount of distrust in leadership and the institution, and it's not surprising," Heidi K. Gardner, a leadership advisor and distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School, tells CNBC Make It.

Meta did not immediately respond to Make It's request for comment.

"Leaders must make sure that they're practicing transparency, and that their actions match their words," Gardner says. "Establishing trustworthiness is an essential part of being a leader, and it takes empathy to create that trust."

An empathy problem for CEOs everywhere

Empathy, or a lack thereof, has become a problem for CEOs across the country as workplaces shift away from Covid-era protocols, experts say.

Employees and bosses spoke often about their lives outside the office while trying to navigate the pandemic's uncertain peak, but the trend is now reversing, leadership coach Muriel Wilkins told the "Radical Candor" podcast earlier this month.

"[Now] leaders just want to drive to results," said Wilkins. "And they're sort of saying, 'Well, it's either drive the results or be empathetic. I can't do both.'"

That results-driven mindset, perhaps exacerbated by a rash of layoffs in the tech industry between late 2022 and mid-2023, makes it hard for bosses to put themselves in their employees' shoes right now, says Gardner.

In Meta's case, the tech giant laid off more than 20,000 workers between November 2022 and May 2023. Some of those ex-staffers were notified via email, causing another rift of trust between Zuckerberg and his employees.

The workers who remain may be less likely to interpret new rules charitably — even though some parts of the new mandate sound worse than they actually are, Gardner says.

"Most people are already using their badges to scan into the office. Workplace attendance has [long] been monitored in that way," she says. "It will help show that everyone is being held to the same standard and that your colleagues are following the rules the same way that you are."

More broadly, return-to-office mandates across the country need to show more justifiable reasons for bringing workers together, says Gardner — especially when the employees themselves push back.

"Maybe someone has social anxiety and doesn't perform well in an office setting, or they're recovering from a trauma or are unable to commute to the workplace, " she says. "Bosses need to take the time to consider why employees aren't excited about returning to work, and get to the root of that."

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I bring in $129K a year making 'Gucci' pasta in my kitchen
I bring in $129K a year making 'Gucci' pasta in my kitchen