Skip to main content

QA workers call Activision's mandatory RTO policy a 'soft layoff'

Several employees tell GLHF that the policy, which is only in place for QA workers, also threatens the well-being of those who remain with the company.

Activision Blizzard is implementing a permanent return-to-office policy for QA employees at its Activision campuses in El Segundo, Austin, and Minneapolis, effective Jan. 1, 2024, the ABK Workers Alliance said in a recent statement. The Alliance shared a copy of the statement with GLHF ahead of its publication and said that the decision threatens the livelihood and well-being of those forced out of work by the policy and even those who return to the office.

“The job security of many QA employees was already on shaky ground due to the announcement of hybrid work earlier this year,” the Alliance said in the statement. “Since then, hundreds of employees have been in correspondence with the Accommodations team to try to receive a permanent work-from-home arrangement due to disability, financial issues, or other factors. Many of these requests have been outright denied and many more have been offered in-office accommodations that do not adequately meet the needs of employees.”

“This has resulted in many employees being forced out of the company in a soft layoff. It is our belief that the removal of hybrid work will result in many, many more employees being forced out of the company and into a desperate situation.”

GLHF spoke with several workers the return-to-office will affect about the situation behind the scenes and the policy’s abruptness, several of whom wished to remain anonymous.

The RTO policy affects QA workers only, traditionally the most vulnerable employees at a game development studio owing to low salaries and poor perception from those who regard the discipline as unskilled and “not part of game development.” QA workers at Activision’s Raven Software were among the first in the industry to organize a labor union in June 2022, the Game Workers Alliance. Activision Blizzard officially recognized the union after weeks of petitioning the National Labor Relations Board to rule against the union, and in February 2023, Activision Blizzard announced a mandatory hybrid work policy that only applied to QA workers.

No one I spoke with explicitly said they believed Activision Blizzard targeted QA workers as a result of their labor organizing. Some suggested targeting the RTO policy at QA and only QA seemed arbitrary and unfair, however, though others also believe the QA divisions are acting as a pilot test for a policy that will eventually apply to all departments. That belief was not common among the people I spoke with, and while a few said they figured the mandatory RTO was inevitable given management’s stance on hybrid work, others said the policy’s announcement blindsided them.

Activision Blizzard did not respond in time for publication when I asked whether a similar policy will apply to other departments in the future.

Activision Blizzard’s official reason provided in the email notice announcing the return-to-office policy, and in a separate statement an Activision spokesperson shared with GLHF, centered on productivity. Management cited statistics showing that productivity increased after the hybrid policy took effect and said slow response times and internet speeds hampered workflow while people worked from home.

However, the workers GLHF spoke with said that management never shared those statistics with employees, and Activision did not respond when I asked to see them or other relevant evidence supporting their rationale. Workers said these alleged numbers ignore the fact that the studio had several successful launches before management implemented their hybrid policy and that QA response times actually improved during the pandemic. They also said they noticed no significant changes since returning to the office under the hybrid structure.

Tying productivity improvements to on-site presence confused some of the people we spoke with, as they told us that prior to Activision Blizzard implementing work-from-home arrangements, nearly all communication in QA departments happened via text-based channels anyway. Management discouraged or even disallowed spoken conversations between QA workers and, at every meeting, reminded all attendees of their non-disclosure agreements. 

One employee said the reason stemmed from management’s belief that, if leaks happened, they would likely come from QA departments instead of anywhere else, a concern that arose from high turnover rates in the department and the potential for company hardware to end up in the wrong hands.

A collection of Activision Blizzard characters, including Tracer and Spyro, are shown celebrating together

Despite having an effective remote work system and joining the company that makes Azure, one of the most capable cloud systems, Activision says off-campus work just isn't a possibility for QA teams anymore.

Some suggested that any productivity problems that have cropped up in QA departments in the last 18 months stemmed from a lack of foresight on the part of leadership – not from workflow or hardware problems – and a possible misunderstanding of situations their own policies helped create.

Our sources tell us that in 2022 and early 2023, Activision Blizzard converted a number of contractor roles in Activision’s QA departments into full-time jobs and promoted several full-time QA staffers into lead roles. Management also started providing new paths for improvement and advancement, offered raises, and made crunch and overtime voluntary. These changes meant that QA departments had more experienced testers and experienced leads who could help them, which had positive effects on turnover. However, management didn’t hire new employees to replace those who received promotions, so more work was spread across fewer people.

A few people I spoke with said that these increases in workload and the lack of understanding from management were contributing factors behind some of the problems Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 –the franchise’s worst-reviewed game – faced in the lead-up to launch.

Everyone I spoke with said that refusing to allow hybrid or work-from-home structures will result in more people leaving the company, which will only worsen the situation. These arguments hold no sway with Activision Blizzard management, however. The RTO policy is mandatory for all QA workers at the Austin, El Segundo, and Minneapolis campuses, and while Activision Blizzard says the Accommodations team can make reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities or extenuating circumstances, the workers I spoke with said that’s not happening – for anyone.

“We take our support for employees with disabilities, differing abilities, mental health requirements, and changing medical needs seriously,” an Activision spokesperson told GLHF. “We are focused on finding appropriate, reasonable accommodations for team members who experience barriers to performing their essential job functions. We thoroughly manage all requests and work with the individual confidentially to understand their medical needs and offer a variety of individualized solutions.”

Activision did not respond when I asked what qualifies as a barrier to performing essential tasks.

The people I spoke with said Human Resources and the Accommodations team are issuing standard-response denials to all work-from-home or disability requests. Some told me that the refusal to work with those who need help comes as little surprise, as the Accommodations team has always been understaffed and lacking authority, caught between HR and other workers with few ways to make a difference. One said that they believe the goal is for management to arrange temporary accommodations themselves while working with HR on long-term solutions, though that potentially creates another serious problem.

A large gray building with big white words spelling Activision

Whether Activision plans on requiring all departments to work from campus offices remains to be seen.

Some people I spoke with told me about instances where management targeted specific workers for harassment – despite increased scrutiny after 2021’s harassment and discrimination lawsuits. These managers would reportedly verbally abuse these workers, express doubt about their abilities in front of others, and, after placing them on performance improvement plans, refuse to help when workers approached them. If accommodation requests are left for managers to decide, it could create more opportunities to subject vulnerable employees to undue harassment and eventually push them out of the company.

Whether Activision Blizzard has a plan to address accommodations or not, the RTO policy poses a serious threat to dozens of employees. Those who care for sick family members, who were hired during the pandemic and worked remotely, who can’t afford the long commutes every day of the week – essentially, anyone with challenging circumstances outside the workplace – are facing the prospect of accepting a severance package that covers two months of their former salary and up to 26 additional weeks, depending on how long the person in question worked for the company.

Some said they will put up with the challenges for fear of not finding work elsewhere, after a year of studios downsizing globally. Others don’t have that option and will be forced to accept the severance package, which they say will only worsen the situation Activision Blizzard aims to fix with this policy. The “soft layoff” will mean more work spread across fewer employees, they say, and will increase stress and lower the quality of finished products as a result.