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As many U.S. organizations deem it safe to reopen their offices, a workplace showdown continues to gather steam.

About 40 percent of business owners will fire employees who refuse to return to the workplace on a full-time basis after the pandemic ends. These business owners believe that staff are less productive when working remotely, according to a survey by Digital.com, a provider of software reviews for small businesses.

A majority of employers (59 percent) who are telling employees they must return to in-person work believe their employees were less productive while working from home, the poll found. About 1,500 U.S. small-business owners were surveyed from April 7-8, 2021.

The findings are further evidence of growing discord between employers and staff over where work will be done as the health crisis begins to subside in the U.S.

For example, a 2021 work-trend survey by Microsoft found that more than 70 percent of workers want to continue to work remotely at least partially even after it’s considered safe to return to the office.

Talent will look elsewhere for flexible work

Dennis Consorte, a small-business expert at Digital, says that organizations planning to force remote staff back to the office should look at the bigger picture when determining where work should be performed or risk losing staff.

“Companies that focus on physical location and hours worked will be behind the curve,” he said in the Digital study. “They should focus instead on the value produced by their extended teams. Otherwise, their most valued employees may seek out remote opportunities elsewhere.”

Consorte’s assertion is backed up by data.

Many employees are ready to give their employers the heave-ho should they lose the right to continue working remotely. According to a report published last month by Realtor.com, almost a quarter of U.S. employees said they would look for a new job if forced  to return to the office.

The Digital survey found that companies that conducted business entirely in person before the pandemic were more likely to fire employees than businesses that were already operating on a hybrid (remote/in-person) model, by a rate of 44 percent to 26 percent.

Almost half (47 percent) of business owners who threatened to fire employees for not returning were in white-collar industries; these included computer and information technology (17 percent), business and finance (16 percent) and advertising and marketing (14 percent) sectors.

When business owners were asked to identify why they felt it was necessary for employees to return to work in person, either on a full or part-time basis, 49 percent said most job functions can only be performed in person.

Helping remote workers thrive is key

“Companies were forced to adapt because of the lockdowns,” Consorte said. “They found ways to keep going despite having limited or no on-site staff. This suggests that a remote, or hybrid environment is often possible. Employees that must perform some job functions in person will of course need to show up at the office on a part-time basis, while they perform the majority of their work off-site.”

Consorte also advises businesses to “give your employees some flexibility and trust. They’ll be happier, and you’ll be able to measure results by the quality and quantity of their deliverables.”

While he recognizes that employers’ concerns over remote workers’ productivity are valid, companies can help ensure the success of telecommuting staff.

“Homes are full of distractions,” Consorte said. “And some people need the structure of an office environment to feel productive. Those people should look for opportunities to collaborate with people in person. But they shouldn’t punish others for their own shortcomings. Instead, savvy companies should look for ways to help remote workers to thrive at home. “

At the same time, employees can be proactive as well, he adds.

“[Remote workers] should build better habits and break bad ones. Sometimes small environmental changes can make a big difference,” he said.

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