This very ongoing issue is nothing new – employees and companies waged battles on telecommuting when George H.W. Bush was president, with little resolution or even lessons learned or retained. It’s gone through different phases since then, but only with the Covid-19 pandemic, now about 2 ½ years old, did it become critical for so many companies. A lot of prosperity, profitability, and worker satisfaction will hang on it, so let’s check in on the latest.
On BBC.com on April 11th, Alex Christian wrote about “The simmering tension between remote and office workers,” documenting specific workplaces where some but not all were allowed to continue doing their jobs from elsewhere and others were ordered to stop. As a result, “this disparity between who gets to work from home and who has to return to the office has created friction: different employees are subject to different rules, and it feels unfair that the rationale has never been explained.” Allowing only some people de facto privileges, which remote work for most certainly is, without openly communicated business justification is a recipe for unhappiness, especially when, as put by one respondent, management “just made (the policy) up as they went along.” Even if eligibility for remote work is determined in part or more by individual suitability, the reasons for differing benefits must be shared as well as consistent.
One answer to the problem of labor being potentially unlimited in specific or total hours came up in “Working 9 to 2, and Again After Dinner” (Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, April 29th). This example, or ones like it, would work well for mothers of school-age children, who could get them ready for and off to school before putting in a main stretch of work, and return to it when all was more settled in the evening. That sort of thing should be a natural advantage of flexible time, without posturing about something close to 24x7 being the preferred norm. Expect further such plans, possibly more formally agreed upon.
Now that the coronavirus is settling down if not ending, with extra-low death rates meaning little employment interference, are most employees returning from home? Not at all, per Emma Goldberg on May 10th in the same publication, as “Just 8% of Manhattan office workers are back full time, survey shows.” It is true that in this area of New York, employees have expressed an unusual amount of concern about crime, but it’s not the national norm for “nearly two-thirds” of companies to be “offering workers incentives to return to the office, including 43 percent that are giving free or discounted meals.” Per the study in the title, “78 percent of workplaces have adopted a hybrid model, allowing a mix of remote and in-person work… a leap from 6 percent before the pandemic.” At least in this place and time we aren’t going back.
These sorts of benefits aren’t always effective. Per Quentin Fottrell in MarketWatch on May 23rd, “’Workers don’t want toys or free food, they want a higher quality of life.’: The Great Resistance is here – as companies struggle to get workers back to the office.” A Stanford economics professor quoted said “neither hard nor soft nudges will work,” and that “nobody commutes for one hour for a free bagel or box or to use a ping-pong table.” He advocated companies naming “two or three days a week” during which all workers were expected to be in the office, more realistic than trying to “enforce a five-day week and fail.” That could be the answer, seemingly strict but concentrating employee appearances together for greater cooperation and sanctioning permanent reductions in shuttling between home and work.
Not all employers are willing to implement such a thing. As mentioned in Vivian Giang’s June 4th The New York Times “A test of devotion,” around then, CEO Elon Musk “issued an ultimatum to Tesla employees requiring them to return to the office for at least 40 hours per week – or lose their jobs.” His view that “remote work is an affront to productivity and personal commitment” was shared by Goldman Sachs chief Jamie Dimon, who said “that working from home isn’t for people who want “to hustle.”” There’s plenty of controversy, as there should be when something this critical is disputable and lacks good supporting data.
Finally, on the other side we return again to Emma Goldberg, whose June 9th New York Times piece was titled “A Full Return to the Office? Does ‘Never’ Work for You?” Opposite to Musk’s wishes, per a Gartner Group human-resources-practice vice president, “there are fewer and fewer companies expecting their employees to be in the office five days a week,” and Google, Apple, and Intuit have all backed off of “rigid” employee reporting requirements.
That’s the situation – reasonable views on both sides, nothing settled, and massive differences between companies, meaning that we’re nowhere near even talking about industry standards. The remote-work issue will probably be unresolved long after Covid-19 is a memory. That’s what we’re facing.