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Are We Heading for a Remote Work Standoff?

May 09, 2022 Digital Workplace
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

As pandemic restrictions wane, some organizations hope to bring employees back to the office for a variety of reasons. Stronger culture, increased productivity and easier oversight rank near the top.

Meanwhile, employees who have been enjoying the benefits and flexibility of remote work say they're ready to walk away from their employer if a return to the office — even partial — is made mandatory.

Case in point: After Apple announced it planned to require employees to come to the office three days per week, Fortune reported that 56% of Apple employees claimed they would leave the company expressly because of this requirement. Such a reaction coming from a bellwether company signals things could take a turn for the worse at other organizations that choose to follow a similar path.

In a survey conducted in March, GoodHire found 75% of managers preferred some type of in-person work, and 77% said they would support severe consequences in the form of firings, pay cuts and loss of benefits to those employees who refused to return to the office. The problem is, it looks like employees are willing to walk out on their own — no firing necessary.

With a record number of people quitting their jobs in March, are employers really in a position to put their foot down? Is there merit to the strategy?

The Pitfalls of a Mandated Approach

Remote work has proven popular among employees, and companies need to understand that professionals have shifted their priorities, said Ricardo Luís Von Groll, content manager at Windermere, Fla.-based recruiting company Talentify. "Work-life balance is now the key," he said.

Yet, many organizations continue to advocate for employees to return to the office at least some of the time — and some are putting policies in place to discourage employees from working remotely.

"This approach is certainly valid in the sense that it can help companies with their short-term goals of making their teams less eager to work remotely,” said Linn Atiyeh, CEO and founder of Metairie, La.-based recruiting firm Bemana.

But this shortsighted approach may also backfire. Atiyeh said companies that take drastic measures to force their people back to the office undervalue the fact that employees have a lot of power in today’s landscape. The growth of remote work on a global scale has given employees access to more opportunities than they ever had in their careers, and leaders who are willing to go to the extreme must be wary of the consequences. 

Related Article: Is a Return to the Office Right for Company Culture?

The Risk of Losing Top Talent

The most significant risk remote leaders must endure if they try to force employees to return to the office is losing their best talent. Remote work tore down the barriers that once prevented employees from getting jobs in other cities, across states and even around the world. With today's shortage of skilled workers, high-performing employees are unlikely to face difficulties finding new opportunities. 

Companies looking to win the talent race are also stepping up their game and promoting their flexibility to attract jaded workers. Airbnb, for instance, recently made headlines for announcing it would allow employees to live and work from anywhere in the world. According to an Insider report, more than 800,000 people flocked to Airbnb's careers page after the announcement.

Organizations that insist on in-office requirements stand to lose this battle. The reality is that implementing certain requirements only stands to alienate employees and harm the business. 

“It will be hard for them to hire qualified workers to perform at a high level. So, results will not come, and the risk of having the business closed is real,” said Von Groll. 

Atiyeh said: “Companies that increase tension in this remote work standoff are only further dividing their team and penalizing employees for trying to build arrangements that allow them to be effective and satisfied while working." 

Related Article: 5 Strategies to Attract and Retain Talent in a Tight Labor Market

The Risk of Losing Face

Sites like Glassdoor, Comparably and even Indeed are popular outlets for workers to review companies before applying for a position. Negative reviews can be damaging for companies and prevent their ability to hire talented employees. Inc. has reported that it takes roughly 40 positive experiences to undo the damage of a single negative review.

Creating a positive culture and keeping employees happy is crucial in this environment, and leaders need to pay attention to what's being said about their company and culture. Taking drastic measures that translate to long commutes and cubicle work a few days a week for employees will manage to do the opposite, said Sharon Steiner Hart, executive coach at Oxford, UK-based Talking Talent.

“This approach will only increase turnover and create a toxic environment for all employees,” she said.

A single bad experience has the power to taint an entire team's viewpoint. Trust in the leadership team can wane, and talent then looks for alternatives that better align with their needs and wants. 

Related Article: How Corporate Culture Feeds Into the Bottom Line

Keeping the Balance and Avoiding Conflict

As the great reshuffle continues, remote leaders are under pressure to create the best work environment for everyone to keep their employees.

While a hybrid approach may sound like a great compromise, companies need to be careful in how they implement the model. Will employees be required to come into the office, or can they choose? Will employees who choose to work remotely have access to the same opportunities and be given the same level of consideration, or will there be bias?

Adopting a hybrid work model helps mitigate some of the concerns organizations have regarding their workforce, as long as it continues to provide employees the flexibility to choose a working model that is aligned with their lifestyle. 

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