As the medical need for remote work is coming to an end, the conflict surrounding it may just be beginning. This difference in opinion between executives and workers who can do their work just as well from home as in an office is just beginning to surface.
For instance, this report (note that it was conducted pre-vaccine) shows that on almost every key metric regarding WFH, executives are much more eager to have people back in the office than the employees. I do think that some of this difference is based on full-time school being available for children, so this gap may narrow come fall. Interestingly, executives cite that they feel that people need to be in the office a certain amount of time to maintain a distinct company culture and despite them saying that performance had improved since COVID.
When it comes to employers wanting workers to come back to work, there is really a sense of trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube. In Los Angeles, for example, last week it was reported that 24.4% of officer workers were reporting to their work location on a given day. The rate in April of 2020 was 21.6%. That’s not a big move, especially considering the high vaccination rates of college graduates in LA County.
While there is some (not a lot, mind you) data that suggests that people work more hours and are somewhat less efficient at home, there are a lot of people who do not want to go back to commuting or spend extra time getting ready for work. They would rather see their kids when they come home from school and having more control over their day-to-day schedule. Companies that keep a higher level of flexibility are going to have a huge recruiting advantage, especially for experienced talent. Lower tenured employees tend to want to be in the office more than longer tenured ones—either due to not having kids yet and/or feeling a greater need to schmooze more to keep their careers moving. This tells us that when flexibility and autonomy are part of your culture, you’ll have a post-COVID edge on attracting talent.
It is this last point that I think executives are missing. When they say maintaining “culture,” many of them are really saying, “Going back to the way things were that I am comfortable with.” You can have a customer oriented culture via Zoom. You can have a quality oriented culture via Teams. What you cannot have is a, “I can only tell if you are working if I can see you” culture via WebEx. And, presuming that leaders feel there is a relationship between culture and success, they are going to have a difficult time arguing that WFH has impacted culture but not productivity. What does that say about your culture when success survives without it? Why would a talented person want to work for a company that has a culture of control for control’s sake?
Most executives understand that the hybrid model of flexible work schedule for white collar workers is here to stay. The bigger question is going to be whether they accept it begrudgingly or accept it as an element of an evolving culture that emphasis employee flexibility and autonomy over leader control.