Thursday, November 30, 2023

Great corporate dilemma: Employees pushback against return to office mandate


Employees around the world are pushing back the return to office mandate of their employers What’s driving them to do this?

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, recently announced employees can work from home forever. He calls the office an ‘anachronistic form’ that is ‘from a pre-digital age.’ Apple’s director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, has departed in protest of his company’s return to work policy. Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently shared his views on why in-office work is better, saying “I don’t know how you build great management” virtually.

Meanwhile, about 50% of leaders say their company already or will require a return to office with employees working full time in-person in the next year, according to Microsoft research that surveyed 31,102 people around the world. Return to office has opened a pandora’s box and has raised more questions than answers about flexible work. There is an overwhelming push-back from employees over the return to office commandments.

Office tourists

Recently, a global technology company started a return to office for 30% of its workforce, but only about 10% turned up. Even those were ‘office tourists’ as those who turned up mainly were taking a break from two years of continuous work-from-anywhere or home, to catch up on colleagues for a chat, rather than any serious work.

Things have reached a point where employees would rather quit than return to office permanently. A survey conducted by recruitment and staffing firm CIEL HR Services showed that at least 6 out of every 10 employees in India were ready to resign instead of returning to the office. Interestingly, according to the survey findings, almost the same number of respondents were ready to skip a higher-paid job that requires them to come to the office. Tata Steel had announced an ‘Agile Working Models’ policy during the pandemic. Now, the firm plans to continue with it.

Employees are quitting in droves

A blanket return to office is one of the reasons why the information technology industry is witnessing unheard of attrition levels breaching the 25% high water mark, with some companies even reporting that a third of their workforce has quit. From an average employee’s point of view, they have enjoyed a return to homes in their tier-2/3 cities while working from anywhere in the last two years.

This has helped them save on rents, live a better life compared to their cramped paying guest accommodations in polluted metropolises, and take care of their parents. Their savings had increased, and at the same time, they could contribute to their family incomes. Now, they aren’t ready to give up. Rather they would look for another job which offers flexible work.

Employees in semi-autonomous mode

The other major reason for not liking the return to office model is that employees have become used to working in a semi-autonomous mode with far less supervision from their managers. A whole new generation of employees who have joined the workforce in the last two years have never experienced the office environment and have managers physically supervise their work. Better work-life balance, being with the family, and financial gains are clearly some of the major reasons why employees are reluctant to accept return to office permanently.

Throughout the pandemic, office employees have found benefits of remote work that they don’t want to give up: There’s no commute, you can exercise during breaks and eat healthier when there’s not an office lunch involved, and your schedule is more yours to make time for what’s important to you, like picking your child up from school or starting and finishing work earlier. They’re joining a movement called the Great Resignation — a wave of workers quitting their jobs after realising they want better.

The future is about connecting

In a letter sent to company executives, a group of Apple workers voiced their opposition to the company’s return to office strategy, accusing the company of de-valuing worker flexibility and implementing a policy “driven by fear.” “Office-bound work is a technology from the last century, from the era before ubiquitous video-call-capable internet and everyone being on the same internal chat application,” the letter reads. “But the future is about connecting when it makes sense, with people who have relevant input, no matter where they are based.”

At a “Wall Street Journal” industry event last year, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon weighed in on the idea of remote work, saying it “doesn’t work for people who want to hustle.” It “doesn’t work for culture, doesn’t work for idea generation,” Dimon continued. “We are getting blowback about coming back internally. But that’s life.” It appears the blowback won. Earlier last month, a year after JPMorgan had said everyone would be required to return to office, Dimon conceded he now expects only about half his 270,000-person workforce to return to office full time — and 10% will work fully remote.

New reality needs new processes

Looks like organizations must accept this new reality as the future of work and tailor ways of working, processes, management styles, remote working platforms, training and hiring among others to suit a flexible future. Instead of looking for specific skills, organizations are identifying people who are quick learners, comfortable with ambiguity, and adaptable to rapidly changing scenarios. Flexible and hybrid work will mean less direct supervision. This will require employees who are self-motivated, can work on a semi-autonomous mode, and at the same time are at ease while collaborating over digital platforms. The shift is from skills to aptitude.

Also Read: Companies yet to reap full benefits of a global data economy

(Abhijit Roy is a technology explainer and business journalist. He has worked with Strait Times of Singapore, Business Today, Economic Times and The Telegraph. Also worked with PwC, IBM, Wipro, Ericsson.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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