Are we headed for a reckoning over remote work?
After the pandemic forced offices to close, millions of people converted homes and apartments into workspaces and helped keep their companies afloat. Many want to continue working remotely, and employers have talked about adopting hybrid models.
But there’s a big disconnect.
While most employees believe remote work is beneficial and increases performance, most managers have a negative view.
In a July survey of 817 supervisors, nearly three-quarters said they’d prefer all subordinates work in the office. A good share, 42%, sometimes forget about remote workers when assigning tasks.
Perhaps the most disturbing finding: Two-thirds of supervisors said they considered remote employees “more easily replaceable” than onsite workers.
“That scares me for those who work remotely,” said Liz Petersen, quality manager for the HR Knowledge Center at the Society of Human Resources Management, which conducted the survey. “The biggest concern is it depends on your industry, company, culture and management — as well as employees. Remote work is not going to be for everyone.”
Remote work has become so popular that most would take a pay cut to keep it. Nearly 30% would switch jobs if they were forced to come in full time, according to a survey by McKinsey & Co.
Yet some employers insist it’s vital to get together in person — to collaborate, develop skills, create a sense of belonging, network and mentor.
McKinsey warned of this disconnect in a July report titled “It’s time for leaders to get real about hybrid.”
Companies want to bring workers back to the office in large numbers, but employees are resisting, and that could drive people away. Nearly 4 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in April, the highest monthly number on record.
“Employers must confront the broadening disconnect between how they and their employees see the future,” the McKinsey report said. “At best, the rosy messaging of a grand return to the office is falling flat.”
At worst, it could lead to waves of departures, what McKinsey called “the great attrition” of 2021 and beyond.
The path forward starts with acknowledging it will take time to figure this out, said Mihir Mysore, co-author of the report and partner in McKinsey’s Houston office. It’s difficult, he said, to disentangle conflicting messages from employees.
They often complain about not being able to unplug from the job and keep personal lives separate, which suggests remote work is causing burnout. They also say they don’t want to return to the office because of the mental stress, which suggests they want to keep working from home.
“What we suspect is happening is that different segments of the employee population are sending out different kinds of messages,” Mysore said.
Veteran workers with family obligations may have established stronger connections with their kids and spouses while working at home. Many also developed other good habits during the pandemic.
They “find it very difficult to let go of that, because they’re secure in their city, secure in their network and secure in their net worth,” Mysore said.
But many younger workers are eager to gain experience and develop deeper relationships. Mysore cited a young person at a client firm who complained about not getting enough opportunities — literally to work.
He said his supervisors had more time so they’re doing more of the work he used to do, Mysore said.
Remote work is dominating the workforce conversation. In a July survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement firm, 172 leaders in human resources and business were asked what was driving so many to quit. Nearly 74% said workers want more flexibility, the top issue by far.
“Supervisors may say these workers are replaceable, but more employees think companies are replaceable right now,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of the firm.
He said it’s never been easier for recruiters to reach candidates because they’re working at home without friends or colleagues nearby. The corporate culture and “connective tissue” that used to bind many employees and employers has frayed during the pandemic, he added.
“I call people today about job opportunities, and every single person picks up,” Challenger said. “The labor picture is so hard and the talent shortage is so real, I think companies are just capitulating on hybrid and remote work.”
NTT Data Services has lost some employees to recruiters but not over workplace flexibility, said Eric Clark, chief digital and strategy officer.
The vast majority of workers have been remote since the pandemic started, including 3,000 at its U.S. headquarters in Plano, Texas. Early on, the company said it would embrace a hybrid model, and Clark said it’s open to people working from home all the time.
“In almost all cases, we’re pretty comfortable with that if they’re productive,” Clark said. “We’re really focused on empowering the worker in those situations.”
NTT Data, which provides information technology services worldwide, has been outsourcing for years. Even before the pandemic, employees were using technology to build major systems rather than assembling “a war room” of experts onsite.
“Whether you’re at home or in a remote office building, it doesn’t really matter,” Clark said. “And we’re not forgetting about our remote workers.”
NTT Data isn’t rushing to return to the office, not with the delta variant surging and new masking guidelines. The company invested in virtual ways to collaborate, and employees are getting better at digital engagements, he said.
But many still yearn for face-to-face interactions, and he worries about the long hours of remote work.
“It’s been successful and productivity continues to be up,” Clark said. “But I do begin to wonder how long we can sustain it.”