Frankly, I am tired of talking about, planning for, excusing, and discussing remote work and other “waves of the future.” It’s almost the end of 2022, so we are entering prediction season and everyone is opining on the hot trends to come. Of course, after prediction season comes amnesia season when everyone tries to forget the silly prophecies that took place in the prior quarter that didn’t come to fruition.
I have no crystal ball, no tarot cards, and no Ouija board. I just have headlines. After all, I am in the media and spend a lot of time reading news stories. So, let’s discuss a few. Elon Musk ordered workers back to the office. Within hours of taking the reins back at Disney, Bob Iger ordered workers back to the office. Snapchat workers were ordered back four days a week …and so on. In 2022, Google changed its remote work policy to work up to only four weeks a year from a remote location. Sensing a trend???
Actually, I have long believed that the irresponsible prognostications that a majority of workers would be remote were, well, irresponsible. There will be more remote work after the pandemic than before. Certainly, some workers like it and certainly the technology tools held up well during the pandemic. But, it will not be anywhere near as common place as it was in 2020 (by law in many jurisdictions) or 2021 (out of prudence and workplace health and safety concerns). The pendulum swung pretty far out and now it will settle back to pre-pandemic levels, but not all the way. Why is this trend reversing?
First, many productivity measures, which were initially encouraging, are down now. In addition, executives really do not like it. In our 2022 Top Concerns of CHROs report, the percentage of CHROs who felt remote work reduced employee loyalty jumped from 48% in 2021 to more than 67% in 2022. That is a 40% increase in the “yuck” factor that HR leaders are feeling about remote work.
In fairness, this has been tried before and also failed. Professor Peter Cappelli reports in his book, “The Future of The Office,” that in the mid-1990s, some large companies experimented with remote work scenarios and within a few years abandoned them. To be fair, the technology today is superior to that era, but humans are pretty much the same. Humans are social creatures who do better in collective environments. In fact, EAP consumption has skyrocketed and depression due to social isolation is the topic you hear most discussed as the cause of that phenomenon though data is still being collected.
In addition, we are already hearing rumblings in some industries about remote work “have and have-not” scenarios. No one in a hospital dealing with infected COVID-19 patients wants criticism from a corporate officer working on their home patio to safely avoid exposure. Industries including hospitality, retail, and healthcare already have these issues and pretty soon that sentiment will spread to some others. Industries that had remote work as a policy before the pandemic will continue to have remote work, but ones that did not will largely, but not completely revert to pre-pandemic work patterns with hybrid arrangements being more common.
You may say “ok CEOs and CHROs don’t like it” but the employees like it and the market always wins. Yes, but….
We are one recession away from employees losing the leverage they have in a booming economy. There are also signs that many employees prefer some form of hybrid over fully remote anyway. I know many CFOs are asking: Why maintain the expense of all this real estate? The answer is: Check with your CEO. They don’t like remote work so don’t sublet those offices just yet.
If employee loyalty is lessened by remote work in an era where employee retention is the top concern of CHROs, then I think we will see changes on the horizon or at least the favorite film of HR leaders may become “Back to the Future” without the Delorean, of course.
Elliot S. Clark