Human Factor: Pushback on withdrawal of ‘work from home’ | Business Standard Column

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The debate over whom to bring back to office, when and for how long has become complicated

Shyamal Majumdar

A young lady in her early thirties appeared for a virtual job interview for the India position of senior data scientist in one of the largest technology firms in the world. The interviewers were impressed with her educational background and experience and offered her a salary they thought she just can’t refuse. All was well until one of the interviewers asked whether she had any questions. There was no question, but the lady said she wanted to continue working from home (WFH).

That stumped the HR director as the company was planning to ask all employees to report to the office in mid-November. Would she accept a lower salary if she is allowed permanent WFH? “No Sir, thank you” was the firm answer.

Welcome to the new tension at the workplace, which has changed beyond recognition in a post-Covid world. No one imagined work from home or ‘work from anywhere’ could be a differentiator between a great employer and a not-so-great one. But it’s started happening, throwing a big challenge to company managements, leaving them grappling with the question of how to convince their talent pool to come back to office after a long hiatus.

The lady in the interview may be one among thousands of talented people who spent the past couple of years re-evaluating their work life priorities. Does it make sense to spend those insane hours in the office after endless commuting? Does it make sense to live in concrete jungles by paying rents that are exorbitant? Has the time come to switch careers? Are those water-cooler moments in the office where innovative ideas apparently take shape over-hyped? In short, for many, this has become a moment to redefine what is a work life.

Consider what happened to Apple in June this year after Tim Cook sent out a company-wide memo telling staff they would be required back in the office for at least three days a week by early-September. That led to a pushback, with a large number of employees making it obvious they were keen to retain their WFH privilege, and wrote a letter to the top management for what they called “a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote/location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees”.

This pushback is not limited to Apple’s employees. Several surveys have shown over half of people currently on WFH want to continue working remotely. Not having to commute long hours just to get into the office is one of the main triggers for this reluctance. A majority of these employees also feel they have been quite productive during WFH and the only reason employers want them back in office is lack of trust, and the old desire of bosses in general to literally possess their employees.

The pushback from employees perhaps prompted Mr Cook to say a couple of months later that there were many good things about remote working and Apple will become more accepting of WFH. He of course maintained that getting people together in the physical sense was important, at least for some of the things his company did. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” he said in an interview, “it’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.”

Some of his peers, however, are less diplomatic. Netflix’s Reed Hastings called remote work “a pure negative,” and Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase warned of lasting damage if workers didn’t get back to the office soon. Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said he would be very disappointed if people didn’t find their way into the office soon.

So the battlelines have been drawn. The push by some employers to get people back into offices is clashing with legions of employees who have embraced WFH as the new normal. A survey of US adults showed that 39 per cent would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about WFH. The generational difference is clear: Among millennials and Gen Z, that figure was 49 per cent, according to a poll by Bloomberg News.

That means bosses taking a hard stance should beware, particularly given shortage of talent at the workplace. Companies who either want employees back full-time in the office or for larger chunks of time – and more regularly – than what employees had hoped for or anticipated should get back to some serious planning. If they don’t do that, chances are people whom they want may walk out of the exit door soon enough. It’s best to listen to a recent PwC white paper which says business leaders have to create work policies and plans that allow for more flexibility and personalisation. A hybrid future combining both remote work and office time may well be an answer, but that needs to be planned carefully as an ad hoc policy approach may just boomerang. The debate over whom to bring back to office, when and for how long has just about begun.

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