Article: The return-to-work pushback: What it means for the future of work

Employee Relations

The return-to-work pushback: What it means for the future of work

Businesses across the world are struggling to reconcile teamwork and employee satisfaction with return-to-work mandates stirring up a hornet's nest for workers trying to reclaim a well-founded work-life balance.
The return-to-work pushback: What it means for the future of work

Almost 50% of CEOs stated their organisations plan to require workers to resume in-person work full-time, in a Microsoft study which polled 31,102 people worldwide earlier this year. This number is outrageously off in contrast to what employees actually want: flexibility. According to a recent study by WFH Research, a data collection project, just 49% of employees whose employers have told them to return to the office (RTO) full-time are actually turning up all five days of the workweek.  

Recently, several companies have announced plans to return to the office. Even as most organisations have attempted to make the transition as soon as possible, not everyone is excited about putting the proverbial genie back in the bottle. This has only resulted in further increasing the executive-employee disconnect. 

Workers at the world’s largest telecommunication company AT&T recently started a petition demanding the company make working from home a permanent option for workers. A group of Apple employees are challenging the company's latest return-to-office decree, claiming they've demonstrated they can do “exceptional work” remotely over the past two years. Apple's in-office directive contrasts with the stance taken by several other Silicon Valley titans, including Airbnb and Twitter, both of which announced permanent remote work options. Ian Goodfellow, Apple’s director of machine learning, left the company in early May citing its RTO policy. Elon Musk has reinforced the company-wide mandate for Tesla employees to be in the office full-time by tracking who shows up to work every week. In the wake of all these RTO announcements and the subsequent backlash from employees, striking the right balance between teamwork and employee happiness appears to be a huge challenge today for businesses globally. As we write this, hundreds of workers at The New York Times and NBC News are defying the companies' recent RTO moves.

The growing rebellion against in-office mandates has opened Pandora’s box sparking more questions than answers about flexible work. At a time when burnout and stress are at all-time highs across professions, workers being summoned back to their desks are reluctant to forgo their work-from-home incentives—and for valid reasons. 

The RTO mandates ‘miss the point’

From mental health crises to protests and activism to the mass exodus of talent, the pandemic-related disruptions have heightened the undercurrent of a broader structural and psychological shift among employees. One lesson that distressed workers have learned from the human and economic catastrophes is that a job does not have to be what it once was. The rethink was well-positioned as several studies have proven that the stigma associated with remote work is a myth and several organisations recorded high earnings and enhanced productivity in 2020 and 2021. 

For people and corporations seeking new growth paradigms in the new era of work, all this could be good news. Employee backlash in various forms, as we have witnessed over the past several months, is resulting in positive long-term changes at work and in the workplace, including working conditions, pay and benefits, and workplace safety.

Jeff Schwartz, VP of Insights and Impact at Gloat—an internal talent marketplace platform, points out that the RTO mandates in many cases miss the point. “The COVID era—perhaps better referred to as the COVID experiment—shows that a significant percentage of jobs can be done productively and effectively through largely remote or hybrid work,” Jeff adds. In part, this is why the wave of people leaving their jobs is showing no signs of slowing down.

The unstoppable trend of quitting

Several industries, including technology, are witnessing unprecedented levels of attrition due to blanket in-person mandates, according to McKinsey report, "Great Attrition or Great Attraction?” with some companies stating that a third of their employees have left. People are changing their professions and sectors, taking early retirements, or starting their own businesses. According to the study, which describes workforce discontent a global phenomenon, the situation has become worse in certain countries. A whopping 60% of respondents in India expressed a desire to leave their current posts.

In the wake of increasing demands for flexibility, organisations are realising the need to have policies for flexi work. “In Asia Pacific, 70% of organisations have a formal policy or set of principles to manage alternative work arrangements,” says Eva Liu, Head of Strategic Development, Health & Benefits, Asia & Australasia, WTW, “and over 50% of organisations said they are recognising the need to create a more agile and flexible workforce.” In fact, organisations have raised pay levels and rolled out new benefit schemes to stem the tide of mass resignations. But one thing is clear: employees want flexibility and autonomy. 

“In a world where flexibility is demanded and expected as the norm,” says Jeetu Patel, EVP and GM of Security and Collaboration, Cisco, “businesses that try to reject this will lose top talent.” Ruth McGill, Chief Human Resources Officer at ING Bank, echoes the sentiment, saying offering flexibility in hybrid settings can be a “key differentiator in the current race for talent."

The office as we know it is over!

In such a scenario, companies are continuing to adjust work policies; Amazon and Google have both recently introduced more flexibility into their previous RTO stances. Recently, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said that the company does not intend to order its employees back to work. "We will proceed adaptively as we learn,” Andy said. Enterprise Linux heavyweight Red Hat will let its nearly 20,000-strong workforce choose whether or not to come back into the office. The office is where we “used to work”, said Red Hat chief people officer Jennifer Dudeck in a blog post. With employees expecting new levels of workplace flexibility, “the question should not be how many days–or which days–employees should be in the office, lab, or campus, but which jobs can be done using new workplace strategies,” contends Jeff, who is also the founding partner of Deloitte Consulting's U.S. Future of Work practice.

On the other hand, organisations such as Airbnb—the company that announced its “live anywhere, work anywhere” philosophy—are taking the remote work concept a little further than most other businesses. CEO Brian Chesky believes working in an office is “anachronistic”. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is also unwavering in his support for remote work. “Office mandates are never going to work,” he said.

“Efforts focused around purpose—when and why we come together—get more traction," says Brian Elliott, Executive Leader, Future Forum and SVP at Slack. "There's no "one size fits all" for the range of teams and functions in large-scale organisations, and people respond poorly to capricious mandates—it's a sign of a lack of trust,” adds Brian. 

How far can organisations go in adapting their work paradigms in order to meet employees’ needs? According to Peck Kem Low, President of SHRI Singapore Human Resources Institute, "flexibility that can meet both employee and employer needs is a win-win situation." When employees' demands go to the extent that they become "rights" or "benefits", regardless of organisational needs, it becomes a problem to be solved, rather than a win-win scenario, adds Peck Kem.

The future of work, and your business

Although many leaders are still grappling with the classic half-full or half-empty dilemma, the question today is more about meeting employee needs and fixing the employer-employee disconnect. The modern workforce wants meaningful changes in their lives and work--more touchpoints with their employers. Employers must focus on keeping their workers motivated, engaged, and fulfilled. Ruth believes it's crucial to listen, learn, and adapt. The importance of trust has never been greater in the workplace. “Leaders must trust that your employees are working with you to achieve the best outcome for the organisation as well as for themselves,” says Peck Kem.

Most talent leaders we interviewed recently stressed the importance of meeting employee needs as they evolve. The key focus areas for them are strengthening mechanisms for employee listening, anticipating growth journeys, fostering psychological safety, and measuring outcomes. In the larger post-pandemic work transformation journey, leaders have to find answers to some of the most pressing challenges of the distributed organisation as they go along including culture alignment, inclusion, and innovation. 

“Addressing the cultural, spatial, and technological changes they can make to create a more inclusive, flexible, and collaborative workplace is key,” suggests Jeetu. Implementing "seamless, secure technology that dissolves the distance between people—will be essential to ensure employee happiness and empower collaboration,” asserts Jeetu. 

Happiness, productivity go hand-in-hand

Organisations will need to embrace different talent strategies and create workplaces where people want to be regardless of circumstances, one that supports onsite, remote and hybrid working in the future of work, asserts Eva Liu.  Eva Liu adds that it is important for employers to understand the concerns of their workforce and map an effective path forward.

HR professionals are essential to overcoming the larger employee backlash and activism dilemma. People managers who proved their mettle during the peak of the covid crisis, can help architect what work should look like. Human resource leaders can identify "what's needed for teams to succeed together," Ruth adds. “Talent professionals should promote employee well-being, connecting the support of healthy, resilient employees to healthy, resilient organisations,” concludes Eva Liu.

Ultimately, it's all about your employees' productivity and happiness. What is critical for leaders now is to have their fingers on the pulse of the workforce before things reach a boiling point. Companies that strike the right balance between business needs and employee expectations will be better positioned to navigate an uncertain future. 

Do you see the office half-full or half-empty? Maybe this is the wrong question! 

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Topics: Employee Relations, #FutureOfWork

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