Most U.S. remote workers say they are done with the office regardless of whether their employees want them back in-person.
That spells trouble for businesses that are unprepared for a potential standoff with staff over the issues, experts say.
According to a recent FlexJobs survey of more than 2,100 employees mostly in the U.S., 58 percent who began working remotely during the pandemic will look for new jobs if they can’t continue to work home even after the pandemic ends.
To be sure, the U.S. economy — and job market — is much more favorable now than a year earlier when the health crisis first hit the country.
While many Americans are still suffering from the toll of the pandemic recession, economic growth has been rampant as more people become vaccinated, stoking optimism that the country is on track to return to pre-Covid levels.
U.S. gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic activity — increased at an annualized pace of 6.4 percent in the first three months of the year, adjusted for seasonal swings, the Commerce Department reported on April 29. That’s at a faster rate than the 4.3 percent recorded at the end of 2020.
At the same time, the country’s unemployment rate slumped to 6 percent in March 2021 from about 15 percent a year earlier when the virus outbreak began spreading in earnest in the U.S.
This rosier economic outlook is spurring some workers to be more aggressive in their requests to their employers to continue with remote work even after it is deemed safe to return to the office.
A U.S. government worker who spoke on condition of anonymity said she was forced to quit her job after being told she would have to go back to the office. She worked from home between March 2020 and April 2021 and was supposed to be able to telecommute until June. This month, she got an email indicating a return to the office was non-negotiable.
“I asked if I could extend it to the agreed-upon date to get my vaccine and wait the two weeks for it to be effective,” she recalled. The company said that wasn’t possible and they then parted ways.
Responding to Rebels
To be sure, employers aren’t without some leverage, at least on a legal basis.
Domenique Camacho Moran, a partner and head of labor and employment practice at Farrell Fritz, P.C. in New York, said companies can mandate workers to be on site—except when a disability “requires an interactive dialogue about a reasonable accommodation.”
“Just because businesses can demand that employees return to work, does not mean they should do so without transparency and planning,” Camacho Moran added.
Deciding if a worker should be allowed to work remote will often require an individual analysis that includes business needs and philosophy, she says.
“In deciding whether to embrace more workplace flexibility, businesses should not lose sight of their policies regarding equal employment and ensure they are not, directly or indirectly, treating individuals from any specific protected class differently than others,” Camacho Moran noted.
“Workplace flexibility is an opportunity for businesses to build employee morale and productivity,” she said. “Any remote work arrangement should include clearly identified expectations and periodic review to ensure that job performance meets the goals and standards established.”
Businesses should inform employees about return-to-work policies, give them the chance to visit the site to witness safety protocols in place, and open communication for questions and concerns. That can cultivate confidence and may limit the number of employees who refuse to go back to the office, she adds.
Companies should try to look at situations from an employee’s perspective—not just theirs, says Bob Nelson, a former HR strategist and expert on employee recognition and engagement.
“This may seem like more work, but it will be worth it if it helps you hold on to your top performers,” he added.
‘The risk is great for losing good performers’
Surveying remote workers to see if and why they want to keep working from home, or how they feel about hybrid arrangements, is also a good idea to devise a company’s stance, Nelson suggests.
“By completely dismissing remote working, businesses are becoming less desirable to job seekers, especially if the job functions are primarily administrative,” noted Alison Pearson, who heads up HR for Hal Waldman and Associates in Pennsylvania.
Eric Fischgrund, founder and CEO of FischTank PR in New York, said business leaders should “respect and accept” that some workers will refuse to return to an office, though he admits he couldn’t speak for businesses that rely on in-person work.
“If someone has underlying medical conditions, anxiety, or just plain doesn’t feel comfortable returning, that should be understood and those individuals should be accommodated,” he said.
It’s easy for business leaders to say they’ll require workers to return to an office, Nelson says. “But the risk is great for losing good performers, as well as not being able to attract new talent in a new world of work options,” he said.
Though employers can specify that workers remain on site, Nelson says it would be more thoughtful to investigate solutions that work for employers and employees. If back-end employees are better able to work remotely than customer-facing employees, allow for those accommodations perhaps after a probationary period, Nelson suggests.
Companies also need to consider their culture when determining who can stay remote, Nelson adds.
“I think it’s still possible to have a strong company culture without having everyone in the office all the time, but that needs to be an intentional goal of the company with supporting strategies to make it a reality,” he said.