In workplaces across the nation, the battle lines over the future of work are being drawn, sometimes pitting executives against their employees. Some employees who’ve reveled in the independence of remote work are scoffing at the idea of going back to the office full-time. And some companies, including even big tech giants like Google and Apple, seem eager to get people back at their desks. A few big employers like Google, Apple, and Facebook have indicated the future of work may indeed be hybrid. What’s less known at this point is what exactly it’ll look like. As plans to return to the office keep getting pushed back, employees that are clamoring for remote work are at times at odds with executives and companies who pine for the good, old pre-pandemic days of full-time office work. A hybrid work future seems likely to many observers, but it appears the battle over the future of the workplace has just begun.
Nine out of ten organizations plan to combine on-site and remote work as the pandemic begins to wind down, according to a McKinsey survey of 100 executives across industries and geographies. But while many are in agreement that hybrid work is the future, not as many execs have solid plans or visions for what the hybrid model will entail. This transitional period has been causing anxiety for some employees, and it’s also led to some mixed signals from employers. Over the summer, Reuters reported that Google employees could face up to a 25 percent pay cut if they opted to work from home permanently. Staffers at The Washingtonian magazine also went on a one-day strike after CEO Cathy Merrill wrote a scathing editorial in the Washington Post that denounced remote work and suggested remote workers could lose benefits and become contractors.
Given the historic numbers of Americans quitting their jobs, CEOs and other executives are in a delicate dance right now trying to figure out hybrid and remote work plans. About 61 percent of employees said in a recent GoodHire survey they’d be willing to take a pay cut to work remotely full-time. Companies and CEOs are certainly not in complete agreement in how they think about remote and hybrid work. Some execs like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey have embraced the remote-work culture, while others feel it’s necessary to be in the office for collaboration and teamwork.
Amid all this rancor, it’s important to note the trend toward hybrid and remote work pre-dates the pandemic. COVID-19 lockdowns accelerated the movement considerably, but working from home had already been gaining steam. Before the pandemic, about 25 percent of American workers did some work from home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey. By May 2020, about 35 percent of the employed U.S. workforce reported they’d worked from home due to COVID-19, according to a special supplement of the Current Population Survey.
“What some people imagine the workplace as before the pandemic, they imagine it being like 1973,” said Maciej Markowski, Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer of spaceOS, a tenant experience and management software provider. “All the technology, all the storage, all the archives were in the office, and you had to come there. There weren’t that many people working this way, though, even in 2018. So, I don’t think we’re going to go back to the ‘Mad Men’ era after the pandemic where you have to be at the office, or you’re not working.”
Looking at it this way, hybrid work may become a compromise between the executives who want workers back in the office at least some of the time and the employees who are willing to even take a pay cut to work from home. And in this battle for the future of work, both execs and employees have much to gain and lose. As the ‘Great Resignation’ continues, companies that are dead-set on a full return to the office risk alienating employees and potential hires. Meanwhile, employees who stubbornly insist on working full-time remotely can suffer at the hands of ‘proximity bias’ from managers and possibly other consequences of inequalities in the hybrid work model. Going forward, the future of work may hinge equally on what executives and employees think about the hybrid and remote model, given the leverage employees hold in today’s job market.
Out of sight, out of mind
In most surveys, an overwhelming majority of American employees report preferring working from home at least some of the time. About 37 percent of workers said they’d like to work from home exclusively in a recent Gallup poll, while only nine percent said they want a full return to the office. The remaining 54 percent told Gallup they’d prefer a hybrid model of splitting time between home and the office. For the workers who want to exclusively work remotely, though, they may want to be careful what they wish for.
Unless a company has a fully remote model, several surveys and research has indicated that proximity bias is a very real danger to remote-only employees. Whether intended or not, employees who are back in the office more and closer to managers may be deemed better workers, even if their performance is the same as a fully remote employee. Darren Murph, head of remote work at GitLab, told Protocol that for companies implementing a hybrid model, handling proximity bias should be their number one priority. Hybrid work models create two playing fields or two-tiered systems for managers to monitor, the on-site employees and those that are remote. “If you have two playing fields to administer, they are inequitable by design,” Murph told Protocol.
This hybrid work dynamic can also have disastrous consequences for gender equality. In several surveys, female workers say they’re more likely to work from home than men, thus being more out of sight and out of mind. Some research shows that remote workers may receive worse performance evaluations and lower raises than their in-office co-workers. As a large share of Americans seem to relish remote work and may even demand it, the unequal playing field of the hybrid workplace may be a reason for a revaluation.
Many executives also haven’t been shy to share their dislike of remote work. For example, at the onset of the pandemic, Goldman Sachs shifted to remote work to keep employees safe. As of April 2020, about 98 percent of Goldman Sachs employees were working from home. By February 2021, though, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon was getting sick of remote work. “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible,” Solomon told the BBC.
Return at your own peril
Given the chance of diminished career opportunities, will workers continue to demand remote work? It’s hard to tell. But with a record number of Americans quitting their jobs in recent months, executives may want to be careful about pushing too hard for a return to the office. Marc Dixon, founder and CEO of the International Workplace Group, says that the shift to hybrid work is ‘irreversible and accelerating fast.’
“Technology will continue to clear the path to change,” Dixon said. “And herding people to the office is looking increasingly obsolete, expensive, and inconvenient.”
About 41 percent of workers are considering quitting their jobs in 2021, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index survey of more than 31,000 workers worldwide. At least in the U.S., many workers aren’t just thinking about it, either. A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September, and the number of vacant positions in October remained at 10.4 million, according to government statistics. Other surveys show many workers simply won’t return full-time to offices, and many said they’d quit if their company didn’t provide permanent or part-time remote work options.
Work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue may be real, but with employees having so much leverage in the job market, a hybrid work model may look more and more likely as a way to retain workers. Being able to work from anywhere has become a perk, but Markowski said companies should consider designing their offices to become a perk and a destination for employees.
“If it’s a good office and it’s smartly designed, it’ll be a perk,” Markowski said. “Not everyone wants to work from home. If you are forced to come to the office every day, a worker may not see it as a positive. But if people have the option to work from a great office, they may enjoy it.”
As of late August, 66 percent of U.S. companies said they are delaying their return-to-the-office plans due to Covid variants, according to a Gartner survey of 238 executives. Only 40 percent of global companies have fully communicated their post-pandemic office plans to employees, according to a survey of 1,000 business leaders by EY Global. Many employees report feeling anxious about this transitional period that some are referring to as ‘The Great Wait,’ as execs and workers wonder whether the future of work really will be hybrid or they’ll be back at their desks five days a week.
The answer will probably be murkier. Some employers will want to go back to full-time in the office, while others will embrace a hybrid or fully remote work model. Both companies and employees have a lot to gain and lose in this seismic realignment in how work is done. The battle lines over the future of work are being drawn, and winners and losers will be on both sides. Remote employees could lose out in hybrid situations because of proximity bias and the inherent inequality of the hybrid model. Employers, on the other hand, would be wise not to force their hands too much, as a historic wave of employee resignations shows workers are serious about demanding certain perks like remote work options. A hybrid work model may be in our future but, as executives and employees trade blows in hammering out the details, it’s still up in the air on which side will prevail.