Planning a full return to the office? Beware 'a stampede of top talent'

Though some knowledge-based companies are insisting workers return full time to offices, the practice could result in a major exodus of workers from those jobs seeking more flexible arrangements.

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At a "Wall Street Journal" industry event last year, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon weighed in on the idea of remote work, saying it “doesn’t work for people who want to hustle.”

It “doesn’t work for culture, doesn’t work for idea generation,” Dimon continued. “We are getting blowback about coming back internally. But that’s life.”

It appears the blowback won. Earlier this month, a year after JPMorgan had said everyone would be required to return to the office, Dimon conceded he now expects only about half his 270,000-person workforce to return to the office full time — and 10% will work fully remote.

Even so, other companies continue to try to end remote work and hybrid work plans. Among them: Goldman Sachs, which last month said it would require everyone to be in the office

The push-pull of in-office requirements versus employee demands for workplace flexibility are the heart of what many companies are dealing with as they struggle to emerge from the after effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The sweet spot, many seem to feel, are flexible hybrid options that allow some work from home, but include some mandated days in the office.

Citigroup, BNY Mellon, Google, Apple and Twitter are among those embracing a hybrid workforce — though Twitter has told employees they can continue working remotely, even with offices open.

By the end of the current quarter in June, most organizations will have opened most worksites, according to a survey by research firm Gartner published in March.

When organizations were asked which work flexibility options they're offering to attract and retain talent, nearly one in five (18%) responded none, according to the Gartner survey of 300 organizations. The industries surveyed  included, among others, IT and telecommunications, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, fuel and energy, construction and real estate, and transportation and shipping.

gartner return to work graphic 1 Gartner Research

Three in five organizations responding to the survey said they have settled on a fixed minimum on-site workday requirement, e.g., employees must come into the office Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. But even those options could cause problems with employee retention.

David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Connecticut, said firms that dictate a full-time return to office — or how employees should work remotely — are missing the big picture. Lewis noted that the US unemployment rate is 3.6% and there are now more than 11 million job openings.

If employees are pushed hard enough, they’ll walk out the door, he said.

“There’s an insatiable demand for candidates that outstrips the supply. You’re missing the point that if your employees don’t want to come back to the office they have choices: see Great Resignation,” Lewis said. “They have options, and they are exercising them.”

OperationsInc claims to have more than 1,000 clients whom they advise on human resources issues and track work-related data. “I’ve been a very focused student of all that’s been going on in workplace matters…during my 36-year career in human resources management. During Covid, in particular, I saw these headlines blaring from various companies…, ‘Get your butts into the office. And if you don’t, you should be looking for a different job,'” Lewis said.

“How’s that working out?”

Employee surveys have shown that as many as 40% of workers would leave their job if they were not allowed to work remotely.

gartner return to work graphic 3 Gartner Research

And yet among businesses that employ white collar or knowledge-based workers, one-third to 60% are requiring an in-office presence of some form, whether part- of full-time, Lewis said.

“A significant percentage of folks are trying to get their workplace back to what they considered normal before COVID,” he said.

Lewis empathizes with managers and business owners grappling with the pressures of dealing with the new post-pandemic normal. Less than two months before COVID-19 struck in 2020, OperationsInc opened a new headquarters office for its 150-person staff.

“I had nine people here yesterday,” he said. “It’s not about the rent. It’s about knowing when I’ve had more people in the office over the past seven months, I’ve felt more able to connect with my team."

Companies that want people in their cubicles should focus on carrots, not sticks, Lewis said; let employees discover for themselves the benefits of being in the office instead of forcing them to be there.

When it comes to hybrid work, one or two days a week in the office seems to be the right mix, according to a new study from Harvard Business School. That echoes the results of an August 2021 survey of 5,000 US workers by the Harvard Business Review (HBR). It found employees want to work from home 2.5 days a week on average.

And as the pandemic has beat on, the desire to continue working from home has only grown stronger.

“Our advice is for leaders to recognize the reality of the new labor market and adapt. Working from home is here to stay,” the HBR report said. “Among the millions of firms that tried remote work since the pandemic struck, fewer than 20% plan to have them return to the office full time after the pandemic ends.”

Ordering employees back to the office full time risks “a stampede of top talent” leaving for rival organizations that will offer hybrid work, according to the HBR study.

“The idea that work has to happen in the office is a fallacy for those employees who’ve been working from home for the past two years,” Lewis said.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, 59% of US workers whose jobs can mainly be done from home are working from home all or most of the time, according to a Pew Research Center survey. That's down from 71% in October 2020, but still much higher than the 23% who said they teleworked frequently before the coronavirus outbreak.

gartner return to work graphic 2 Gartner Researcj

The impetus for working from home has shifted considerably in the past two years. Today, more workers say they are doing it by choice rather than necessity, the Pew Research study found. Among those working from home even though they have an office outside the home, 61% say they work from home by choice, while 38% say their workplace is closed or unavailable to them.

Looking ahead, 60% of workers with jobs that can be done at home say they’d like to keep doing so all or most of the time when the pandemic is over. That's up from 54% who said the same in 2020. And among those currently working from home all or most of the time, 78% want to keep doing so, up from 64% in 2020, according to Pew.

As for worker reticence to return to the office, about a quarter of workers who have at least some in-person interactions at work (26%) are more concerned now about being exposed to the coronavirus than they were before the Omicron variant started to spread in December 2021. (The same share — 26% — say they are less concerned than they were before.) About half (48%) say their level of concern is unchanged.

Workers’ ability to do their job from home varies considerably by industry. For example, majorities in the information and tech sector (84%); banking, finance, accounting, real estate or insurance (84%); education (59%); and professional, scientific and technical services (59%) say their job can mostly be done from home. Among those in government, public administration, or the military, 46% say their job can be done from home while 54% say it cannot, according to Pew.

In turn, about three-quarters or more of those employed in retail, trade, or transportation (84%); manufacturing, mining, construction, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (78%); and hospitality, service, arts, entertainment and recreation (77%) say that, for the most part, their jobs can’t be done from home. Two-thirds of those in healthcare and social assistance say the same.

The reasons for wanting to work from home are more varied than simply wanting to avoid a commute or personal exposure to the COVID-19 virus, Lewis said.

For example, many employees have childcare issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic, such as the closure of small facilities. And in multi-generational households, workers have parents and grandparents to take care of.

“The employee and job seeker gets to call the shots now,” Lewis said. “The sooner employers can wrap their heads around that, the sooner they can put together collaborative approach with employees.

“At the end of the day, the big mistake companies have made is they’re not doing enough research and communication with employees to understand the drivers behind their reluctance to come into the office,” Lewis said. “If employers took the time to understand that, they’d have a greater level of empathy and sympathy for those employees, and it would enter into their decision making process going forward.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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