Plans to return to the office unravel as workers revolt in a tight labor market

Workers stubbornly commit to remote work as they struggle with child care, the grind of commuting and COVID concerns

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Even the most flexible bosses temper expectations of their return to the office.

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JPMorgan Chase & Co. President Jimmy Dimon has been one of the most vocal critics of remote work, arguing that it is no substitute for the spontaneous idea generation that results from bumping into co-workers at the coffee machine. But in his annual letter to shareholders last month, the president of America’s largest bank allowed working from home “will become more permanent in American business,” and estimated that about 40 percent of its workforce of 270,000 people will work under a hybrid model, which includes days Work in the office and at home.

Shortly after Dimon’s letter, one of the bank’s top technology executives told some teams they could cut back from three days in the office a week to two, citing internal feedback.

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Many white-collar workplaces are doing similar retreats where their employees are stubbornly committed to working from home as they struggle to care for children, crunching commuting and concerns about a spike in COVID-19 cases. Chiefs warn against taking punitive measures against those who do not follow their allegedly ambitious plans, fearing that they will backfire in today’s tight job market. This leaves them to re-evaluate their carefully crafted strategies and reconsider their realistic, long-term approach to personal work.

A person appears in a window of a JPMorgan Chase & Co branch across the street from the company's headquarters in New York.
A person appears in a window of a JPMorgan Chase & Co branch across the street from the company’s headquarters in New York. Photo by Michael Nagel/Bloomberg

“We are seeing policy regression in real time,” said Melissa Swift, US transformation leader at Workforce Advisor Mercer. “There was all this talk previously about the importance of office collaboration for white collar jobs. That slip. Now, only the people who need to operate a screwdriver have to be in the office.”

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Not all workers are rebelling against directives to return the office, with disparity between companies, sectors and job categories. However, employers are seeing new reason to doubt the usefulness of their RTO guidelines. People are returning to just about everything else — travel, restaurants, concerts, and stores — amid a general easing of state and federal restrictions related to COVID. So CEOs can no longer reassure themselves that workers will return faithfully once those rules are relaxed.

We are witnessing a real-time policy regression

Melissa Swift

Meanwhile, organizations that returned to the office in the first few months of the year now have plenty of feedback from employees, many of whom are frustrated with commuting just to spend half their day on Zoom calls. That adds to two full years of data on how the workforce stays just as productive – and often more satisfied – while working from home, and emerging research from academics. The result is a tidal wave of powerful evidence that can convince even the staunchest remote working skeptics.

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Examples of RTO resistance are many. At Apple Inc. , a small group of employees opposed the iPhone maker’s plan that would soon require most of the company’s employees to be in the office three days a week. A labor group called Apple Together wrote an open letter to the company’s leadership last month, with the signatories asking “that we decide for ourselves, along with our teams and our line manager, what type of work arrangement is best for each of us.” The staff also dismissed the often-cited desire for personal collaboration, saying “this is not something we need every week, often not even every month, and certainly not every day.” Apple declined to comment.

Some Apple workers are resisting plans to return to the office three days a week.
Some Apple workers are resisting plans to return to the office three days a week. Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

For some companies, there is no longer any discussion. Airbnb had earlier pegged September 2022 as its return to the office, but CEO Brian Chesky called off that plan last month, instead telling his 6,000 employees they can work remotely indefinitely. “Each of us does better in our own way, and we give you the flexibility to make the right decision based on where you are most productive,” Chesky wrote in an email to employees.

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A few law firms have relaxed their previously strict attendance policies. Cooley LLP, which has a staff of 3,000, said last month that it would allow its lawyers to decide if and when they would go to its offices, provided their duties allow for remote work.

When old-school bankers and lawyers reluctantly accept the value of working from home, it’s a testament to how much things have changed. A new survey of real estate executives conducted by CBRE Group Inc. The share of those who expect their workplace to be “office-based” for most future employees has fallen to 19 per cent from 30 per cent last year. At the recent Milken Institute Global Conference, the famous icebreaker was asking fellow attendees about their organization’s approach to working from home. “It’s the start of a common conversation like asking about someone’s kids,” said Bob Kryshev, portfolio manager at Shenkman Capital Management.

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A growing body of research supports these shifts. While many companies settle for three or four days in the office when initially creating hybrid working arrangements, the ideal setup is actually only a day or two in the office, according to a recent working paper from Harvard Business School. Research led by Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University found that mixed work schedules can also reduce employee quit rates by 35 percent compared to those who work entirely out of the office. With Americans quitting their jobs at a record pace — 4.5 million in March alone — this flexibility is important.

Empty office in Montreal.
Empty office in Montreal. Photo by Allen McInnes/Montreal Gazette

When data storage giant Teradata Corp asked employees at all of its US locations if they wanted to return to the office at least a few days a week, half answered in the affirmative, according to chief personnel Cathy Cullen-Cote. But among that group, only half of them appeared. “If I was sitting in the corner of the office, and only half the people were there, would I have that water cooler conversation?,” said Colin, whose company has cut its real estate footprint in half.

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“Employees don’t show up, and it’s hard for employers to deal with this,” said Stanford’s Bloom, whose ongoing analysis of workplaces in the age of the pandemic has found huge gaps between what managers and workers desire when it comes to RTO policies. This is because for every boss who claims that corporate culture and innovation suffer when offices are sparsely populated, there are plenty of workers, especially women and under-represented racial groups, with no desire to return to the inequality, double standards, and subtle excesses of everyday offices. life.

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82 percent of working moms surveyed earlier this year by the Future Forum, a research consortium backed by Slack Technologies Inc. , they want flexibility in their workplace, the highest level since the group began surveying white-collar employees in 2020. Black workers are also more likely to want some employees to say where they work than white employees do.

While many companies have adopted so-called “work from anywhere” policies similar to those of Airbnb, others have set a price for remote work. For example, London-based law firm Stephenson Harwood recently told its employees that anyone wishing to work from home permanently would have to cut their salary by 20 per cent.

But such warnings are rare. Instead, frustrated bosses are increasingly making emotional appeals. In a recent note to employees, Rich Handler, CEO of Jefferies Financial Group Inc. , “We are in better mental health when we are close to each other regularly. Our young and mid-level associates need our empathetic seniors to personally lead them.”

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Recognizing the efficiency of remote working, Handler and President Brian Friedman said many mid- and junior-level employees “feel abandoned,” and they “need to be in your physical presence” to see the big deals get done or learn how to grow customers. “They need this from you,” the bosses told the company’s top employees. “It just takes more effort from all of you.”



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