Only 44 percent of American employers asked their workers what their preferences were for returning to the office, a new study by executive coaching organization Vistage has found.
The majority of firms with workers who had gone remote because of COVID-19 restrictions came up with policies about what to do when the rules were relaxed without asking their workers, it found.
The finding comes as the issue of workforces returning to offices— or not— becomes a more widespread question for C-suites.
About 50 percent of American jobs cannot be completed remotely, said Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and co-author of “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work… Wherever You Are.”
But among the 50 percent who can work remotely, experts told Zenger there were significant variations in gender, age, where they work and the sector they are in over whether to return to the office in full, in part or not at all.
Women and African-American employees are more likely to want to remain remote, as are Millennials and people in so-called blue states, while Generation X — those aged 41 to 65 — and residents of red states are more likely to embrace full-time return to the office, they said.
Some of the U.S.’s largest companies have in recent weeks publicly grappled with workforces’ fractured views on whether, and how, to get back to offices.
In early June, after Apple announced a return to the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays starting in September, employees pushed back in a letter to CEO Tim Cook, asking for more flexibility for remote work.
Amazon and Uber also switched from more ambitious in-person plans to flexible hybrid models last month.
But some of the biggest banks have taken a stricter approach. Goldman Sachs required most of its employees to return to the office last month, while Morgan Stanley expects employees back by September if they have proof of vaccination.
Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, has been vocal about a full-scale return to the office. At a Wall Street Journal CEO Council event in May, Dimon said remote work “doesn’t work for people who want to hustle, doesn’t work for culture, doesn’t work for idea generation.”
James Bailey, professor of leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., told Zenger many companies are afraid if they stay remote, they will never reach the same pre-pandemic level of company culture.
“You can’t build culture remotely,” Bailey said. “You just can’t do it.”
Bailey surveyed nearly 500 executives on their return-to-office preferences and tested differences across age groups. He found that millennials were the strongest resistors to in-person work, while members of Generation X were the strongest supporters, and baby boomers fell in the middle.
Bhrugu Pange, managing director in global management consulting with AArete’s Technology Solutions, a management consulting firm, told Zenger that the politics of the area that a given office is located in was a significant factor in back-to-the-office plans.
Businesses in Republican-leaning states have been more eager when it comes to reopening, whereas those in blue states tend to feel more cautious at the idea.
On a smaller scale, the kind of community matters as well. Offices located in tight, heavily populated urban areas acted more wary toward in-person work policies than offices located in the suburbs, Pange said.
He said that when creating back-to-work policies, business leaders tend to follow politicians’ lead in terms of reopening, partially because it’s “such a confusing time” for executives to make the right decisions regarding their employees’ preferences.
He also said women, who lost nearly a million more jobs than men since the pandemic started, prefer hybrid work models with a mix of at-home and in-office flexibility. The pandemic impacted working mothers’ careers and increased their household responsibilities far more than women without children, according to McKinsey & Company.
But Pange said when women cannot show up in-person at work due to childcare concerns, it can lead to male executives holding misperceptions of women being unfit or unqualified for their positions.
There is also a variation by sector. According to the Best Practice Institute’s 2021 Return to Work Study, 64 percent of employees preferred a remote-friendly environment where they could work from home at least part-time. Those in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sector made up the majority of employees who wanted to stay remote, while those in the business support and logistics sectors were more likely to want to return to the office.
Louis Carter, CEO of the Best Practice Institute and author of the study, found that 76 percent of respondents felt their personal productivity improved by working from home.
But he said that productivity depended on employees’ prior experiences working remotely and their working conditions at home.
While employees may face long commutes and interruptions from coworkers in the office, Carter said at home their interruptions might come from children or pets.
“It’s a big variable as to which one is more distracting,” he said.
Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of “Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic,” said minorities, especially black employees, are more likely to prefer working from home because of in-office discrimination concerns.
In deciphering why so many companies ignored their employee’s preferences and reversed their back-to-work decisions, Tsipursky said employers tend to act based on what’s most familiar to them, through what he calls status quo bias and anchoring bias.
When executives proposed ambitious back-to-office plans without asking their employees first, they shut out beliefs they anticipated would contradict their own — an example of confirmation bias, according to Tsipursky.
Experts said they believed most companies will move to offer every office employee a hybrid work model.
Pozen believes companies will create teams of workers who will “rotate through the same space, two or three days a week,” in order to save on real estate while also allowing some in-person collaboration time.
And Pange said there would be a “tremendous amount of opportunity” to develop and implement new technology to enhance the hybrid work setting for those who wish to work from home.
He adds that a hybrid work model, with designated office days, could help decrease employee burnout by clearing the blurred lines between work and leisure time.
“This [remote] productivity spike is not sustainable, and so, I believe it’s going to crash,” Pange said. “So, in an ironic twist, actually coming back to the office might lend itself better to having a work-life balance.”
(Edited by Hugh Dougherty and Matthew B. Hall)
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