Post-COVID WFH Conflict: Bosses vs. Just About Everyone Else

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.

Are We Entering the Age of the Employee?

As working age people have been getting their COVID vaccinations in the US, companies are moving from the theoretical regarding the “new” work life into putting new policies into place.  There are a few I want to point out because they may be indicators of companies moving towards policies that are messier, but more employee focused.

Regarding work from home schedules, or lack thereof, General Motors came out swinging with Work Appropriately.  As their CEO puts it, “This means that where the work permits, employees have the flexibility to work where they can have the greatest impact on achieving our goals.”  So, the policy is basically, “Be an adult.  If you would rather not commute and you get can your work done, do it at home.  If you are a social animal and feel you’re more productive at the office, we’ll see you in the morning.”  This policy places the responsibility, where it should be, on the employee to manage his/her/their performance and career as well as their work schedule.

Many companies struggle with people taking their paid time off (PTO).  Even during the pandemic when many were experiencing additional stress, PTO was not fully being used.  Sure, part of that was due to travel being restricted and there are cultural issues to be addressed if a large number of people are not using this benefit.  But, many people were working longer hours from home and taking less time off.  Organizations tend to believe that people are more productive and engaged when they take their PTO and are often frustrated when they do not.  And, typical of American culture, they responded by threatening punishments (you can only accumulate so much PTO, use it or lose it, etc.).  Now we are seeing the pendulum swing back as companies are beginning to offer incentives for taking PTO.  Full disclosure: my wife works for an organization which has always done this and it helps.  She would use less of her PTO without the incentive. And I think this is the case in organizations that have particularly competitive cultures.  Incenting people to take PTO will not by itself reduce burnout, but it can be helpful.

Lastly, I want to bring up Amazon’s declaration that “We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”  Of course, this comes with the caveats that it came from an outgoing CEO and right after a bruising union fight.  However, that this additional employee focus, and not just for white-collar workers, was put on the table represents a sea change for an organization that is (proudly) customer-centric.

Now, this may just be a moment.  Senior managers, who felt the stress and disruption of the pandemic as much as their employees, may be viewing their “most valuable asset” differently now, but when the usual business pressures inevitably return, they may snap back to the status quo.  Or, employees will use these new tools to be productive and engaged enough so that they will stick.  We will soon see if we are entering the age, or the fad, of the employee.

Are Companies Getting Cold WFH Feet?

The pendulum normally swings back when we see paradigms shift.  As many companies made the move to work from home (WFH) with the onset of COVID-19, this article (which lacks data, by the way) there may be some rumblings from some companies to bring people back to the office (safely, of course).  Is this really a WFH issue or a management issue?

It is to be expected that WFH will not be a permanent arrangement for everyone who is doing it now.  Whether due to circumstances, preference, or company culture, some people (and companies) are going to prefer to have people in offices.  But, to make WFH effective, companies have to adjust how they manage people and not just pretend that the same approaches will translate from the office to home work environments.

For instance, people experience more autonomy when working from home.  That can either be leveraged for faster decision making (with perhaps less consensus) or problem solving time can be built into weekly schedules.  Or teams can develop new approaches to problem solving that account for WFH.

Others in the article are concerned that it is more difficult to build relationships when working remotely in that there are fewer opportunities to spontaneously interact.  One company’s solution was renting a large cottage where their (small) company could get together.  Of course, there’s nothing awkward about spending “voluntary” week or two in a house with your boss.  I have a better idea.  It uses old tech, but I think it might work.  How about using that calling feature on your phone to reach out to people?

An approach mentioned, and one that one of my clients with “essential” workers has been using, is a blended one.  The HR team determined how much on site coverage was needed to address employee and management issues and the staff has alternated days in the office to cover those needs and doing WFH on the others days.  This has allowed for distancing, having some personal interactions, and a recognition that some work is done better at the office and other work can be done just as well remotely.

One executive in the article mentions the difficulty in training new employees, who would typically go through 6 weeks of classroom training and OJT.  And, if your mindset is that is the ONLY way to train employees, then remote work presents a problem.  If you are willing to innovate, then it is more of an opportunity. Just as pre-COVID not everyone wanted to work at an office, as we adjust to COVID, not everyone is going to want to WFH.  It is reasonable to assume that while many people will go back to working 40 hours a week at an office, there is going to be a substantial number that do not.  Companies should be looking for ways to adapt to that reality instead of forcing old squares into new round holes.

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