As some world economies return to regular operations, disagreements have arisen over how to get back to work. In early June, Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a memo to all of his employees saying they were to return to the office in September of this year. Workers were expected to attend the office 3 days a week, with 2 days of remote work.
Some employees disagreed and responded with their own letter to senior management: the message was one of frustration about the new policy and also stated that it had led some employees to resign.
Apple’s policies prior to the Covid-19 pandemic discouraged remote work, but now workers are challenging what they call “a disconnect between what the executive team thinks is remote / flex-location work and experiences lived by lots of Apple employees”.
They are not the only ones resisting plans to return to the office
The task force at US-based Washingtonian magazine virtually shut down operations after CEO Cathy Merrill published an opinion column that appeared to threaten employees’ job security if they refused to return to the office five days a week.
Other employers continue to take a tough stance, although last week Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said he would be “very disappointed if people haven’t found a way back to the office” starting in September. “If that happens, we will have another kind of conversation.” As employers begin to unveil their post-pandemic job prospects, resistance movements are hardly emerging from employees who want to maintain work-from-home privileges.
But emerging and local protests may be an indicator of broader resistance
Employees may feel that they have already shown that they can be productive at home. And that the reasons for companies to return to face-to-face work are not valid enough. Establishing future work patterns that satisfy all parties will be a complex process. But going through it will pay dividends for companies; if they do not, and if employees have better options, they might as well walk away.
The discussion: Remote work has paid off for many, though not for all employees
A recent survey in the United States showed that 44% of people who worked from home in January 2021 wanted to continue with that scheme because it benefited them; 39% responded that they preferred to return to the office, and 17% said they want to continue working remotely due to the coronavirus. In general, teleworkers highlighted not having to commute to work as one of the great advantages, as well as having more scope to balance family time, leisure, and work.
Many employees assumed that remote work would prevail once introduced, and some even moved to other cities for that reason. This happened in part because companies had to act fast and implement transitions. Some employers even sent signals suggesting that the change would be long-term.
Last September, for example, Tim Cook said that he didn’t think Apple would be the same again “because we found that some things work very well virtually,” although he also warned about his comments.
“When decisions were being made, everyone was trying to figure it out, and things were said that were not thought through,” says Kimberly Merriman, professor of management at the Manning School of Business at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, USA. .
Now, with a more imminent return to face-to-face work, many companies are arguing about a “hybrid” future that combines office hours and remote work. But some are requiring their employees to return to the office full-time or for periods. longer and more frequent than workers anticipated or expected.
It has become clear that not everyone is happy with having to return to their desks. Many perceive that they have demonstrated adaptability to remote work early in the pandemic and that the experiment was a success, including positions for which bosses had previously resisted any kind of flexibility.
And they are skeptical of the reasons cited by the companies to justify the return: The corporate culture thesis
Many firms, for example, have underscored company values or culture as the reason behind calling for face-to-face work. In her column for The Washington Post, Merrill suggested that remote work was made easy at first because the team “was able to lean on office cultures, established practices, non-explicit rules, and shared values, established throughout the years largely because people interacted in person.
Another common belief is that remote working hinders collaboration and innovation, because the latter in particular often arises from spontaneous conversations in the office. There is also concern that the remote work model may not work well for younger or base employees who want to learn from their colleagues.
But young workers aside, employees who feel they have been productive and innovative from home are questioning the motto of engaging with “corporate culture”. “This (emphasis on corporate culture) kept coming up in a way that didn’t sound genuine. It was almost like a euphemism for ‘I want you back, I don’t want you home. I do not trust you’. This is how employees are interpreting it”, says Merriman.
In general, workers who have enjoyed greater autonomy in their professional lives than ever before are reluctant to trade it for presenteeism and pre-pandemic surveillance. “What we are seeing is a democratization of the workforce, in the sense that people can decide how and when to work”, says Stefanie Gustafsson, an academic at the University of Bath School of Business.
Merriman also notes that there has been a “shift in power dynamics” at work that will not go away. “Today, people value a work environment where they feel they matter, and leaders who ask for their opinions”, she says.
The good news is that in a competitive job market like the United States, those who are dissatisfied with their employer’s policies on flexibility have options and room for maneuver. “To grow back, business leaders will need to understand what employees really want and create policies and plans that allow for more flexibility and personalized adjustments,” says a recent report from the firm PwC. Companies that do not conform to the work structures desired by employees will do so at their own risk.
“As long as the workforce has alternatives, those organizations will lose”, Gustafsson warns. “Before the pandemic, working in the office three days a week would have been seen as a big change. But now people have options: other organizations in the same space may offer totally flexible and remote work environments.
Research on the subject certainly suggests that for a number of reasons: A higher-than-normal percentage of employees are entertaining the idea of quitting their jobs, in what has been called the “Great Quit”.
The level of flexibility of the companies could be contributing. A survey shows that 54% of surveyed employees around the world would consider quitting their jobs if they are not given some form of flexibility in terms of where and when they go to work.
Just over 75% in the same group said they were satisfied with their jobs, suggesting that even satisfied employees are willing to quit if their employers do not incorporate some form of remote work.
Not everyone will be able to enjoy these privileges, however. There is high demand for workers in the tech sector, providing them with more flexible employment options from a wide range of companies, but workers in other sectors will have less room for maneuver.
Those who are specialized in sales, administration or human resources, for example, have been less likely to work remotely in the first place, and this may mean that they have fewer opportunities to switch to that scheme in the future.
It remains to be seen whether employees who leave en masse or have taken action to oppose post-pandemic work practices will influence company policies. Apple has yet to respond publicly to the letter its employees sent. But public resistance from employees like Apple’s can influence others at other companies. Just as executives are watching other leaders bring employees back, they can refer to these resilience efforts for inspiration.
It is also clear that companies continue to adjust policies. Amazon and Google have recently introduced more flexibility in their previous back-to-office stances, although there is no evidence that this is in response to employee rejection. But, in general, dissatisfied staff do not give a good image in companies.
“Companies should be concerned when employees complain like this [Apple’s case]. It can scale and give the impression, even with a small number of employees, that this is the tone of the organization”, says Merriman.
Rather than broadcasting decisions from above, engaging in transparency and dialogue can be more helpful to employers as they establish what work will be like after a pandemic. In the last 15 months, many workers have embraced flexibility and autonomy, and will be reluctant to give it up.
“[The rejection] is more of a wake-up call than a death sentence for employer relations,” Merriman clarifies. “I am not sure why the pandemic made [leaders] forget that you can’t be a top-down leader when workers have options”.