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SAP Employees Protest Return-to-Office Policy

SAP CEO Christian Klein says working from home hurts both culture and teamwork.

(Bloomberg) — An internal letter criticizing SAP SE's back-to-office policy has attracted more than 5,000 signatures in less than two weeks, with the German software company's employees threatening to look for other jobs rather than return.

"We feel betrayed by a company that until recently encouraged us to work from home, only to ask for a radical change in direction," according to the letter, which was posted internally and seen by Bloomberg News. The company's European works council, a group that represents SAP's employees on the continent, said the requirement to be back in the office was unreasonable after employees had been told they could continue remotely.

SAP, Europe's largest software company, outlined a new guidance in early January that will require employees globally to work in an office or on site with a customer three days a week from April. SAP Chief Executive Office Christian Klein has pushed back on the works council's opposition and said that working from home will cost SAP its culture and teamwork.

"I'm not a big believer that on a video conference platform you can understand our culture, you can get educated, and you can get enabled to do your job best," Klein said last week following the company's financial results.

SAP, in a statement Wednesday, said "striking the right balance between remote and on-site work helps drive productivity, innovation and employee well-being. We're evolving our flexible work policy to align with best practices in the market and our own experience as a front runner in hybrid work."

Many companies have increased return-to-office requirements over the last year, replacing employee-friendly incentives like happy hours and commuter subsidies with more punitive measures including disciplinary action or limited career advancement if attendance targets aren't met. Earlier this month, International Business Machines Corp. told managers they'd be required to move near an office and start attending three times a week unless they wanted to leave the company.

Return-to-office rules are often seen as fueling attrition. The SAP employees wrote in their letter that if the new requirement is intended as a "zero-cost staff reduction strategy," it will only drive away talented employees.

The tech industry in particular has seen a tightening of rules as the market soured and the risk of job cuts has tipped the scale in favor of employers. Still, US office attendance remained fairly stagnant throughout 2023, according to data from office security company Kastle Systems. Across the 10 largest business districts in the US, the number of workers in the office hovered around 50% of what it was before the pandemic, with tech-heavy regions like the San Francisco Bay Area reporting even lower percentages.

Less than a month after presenting the back-to-office policy, SAP announced restructuring that would affect 8,000 employees. SAP said it would identify "AI-driven efficiencies" in its operations and restructure parts of the business to deal with the changes. The company says it plans to end 2024 with a headcount similar to current levels. SAP had almost 108,000 employees as of the end of December, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

"We are the ones that learned to adapt to the absence of significant salary increases over the years," the works council said in the letter, which had been viewed more than 100,000 times. "To compensate for this, we took advantage of the remote work possibility and moved where living costs were lower, away from expensive metropolises."

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