The global pandemic forced over a decade’s worth of change into less than a year. Although the enabling technologies for remote work had existed for a decade, businesses had been reluctant to embrace it. With the pandemic, change was forced upon them. Seventeen months since the first rumblings of the pandemic, remote work has become an established way to conduct business. As the vaccine rollout progresses and the country returns to normal, many businesses have decided to continue with remote work, or some hybrid work model. There are businesses, however, who view remote work as an exceptional reaction to extraordinary times, and want to rewind the clock to the pre-pandemic era and return everyone to the office. These businesses are being met with resistance by their employees. Working from home has given these employees advantages and benefits that they are simply not willing to give up. As you will see in this article, work from home is winning in the battle between home and office.
Those businesses who favour an office-only model are fighting against various forces. The first is simple inertia. After seventeen months, employees have grown accustomed to working from home. It provides them with a freedom and flexibility that working from the office does not. This is the second force that these businesses are fighting against. It is hard for anyone to take back a benefit once it has been given. In defence of these employees, the data suggests that not only did businesses not suffer any productivity losses during the pandemic, many businesses experienced productivity gains. Yet the anti-remote work businesses remain fearful that remote work disengages workers from their work and is a sign that remote workers lack “hustle”.
Remarks by various chief executives have shown that workplace facetime remains an important part of their culture. JP Morgan Chase & Co.’s chief executive officer (CEO), Jamie Dimon said that remote work was anathema “for those who want to hustle”, adding that remote work doesn’t work for clients, even if it works for remote workers. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon declared that remote work is “an aberration” that Goldman Sachs will correct “as soon as possible”. WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani triggered a social media uproar when he said that employees who are “uber-ly engaged” with their work would want to be physically present in the office at least two thirds of the time. These comments were echoed by Cathy Merrill, the CEO Washington Media, who said that she is worried that the shift to remote work will erode office culture.
Employees are used to having unpopular decisions forced upon them by their bosses. Businesses aren’t democracies and nobody expects them to be. So, it was natural to expect that CEOs would win the day and remote work, Solomon’s “aberration”, would be quickly quashed.
Yet, something strange happened. Workers, perhaps emboldened by the lessons of the pandemic -that life is fleeting and you have to grasp your chance at happiness-, quit in record numbers. Adding fuel to the fire is global supply-chain disruptions, combined with pent-up demand, has boosted the demand for labor, giving job-hunters so many options. Workers are free to look for jobs that meet their expectations, safe in the knowledge that the options are aplenty. The Wall Street Journal has referred to remote work as the “new signing bonus”, used by employers to attract new talent and to maximize their talent pool. Those businesses that are willing to embrace remote work, can think of the entire world as their talent pool unconstrained by borders, or the need to support VISAs, and have relocation programs. Remote workers are aware of their new-found power and have begun to shun businesses that expect an in-office presence. This has forced chief executives averse to remote work, to track back.
Amazon, for instance, had an “office-centric” plan in place, but this has been revised, giving workers the option to work from home two days a week. Google and Uber have relaxed their initial office-centric plans, having initially said they expected workers to work from the office at least three days a week. Facebook, which had been one of the first tech giants to talk about having permanent remote work for some of its employees, expanded its program to all its workers. LinkedId has said it will move from its earlier position in which workers were expected to work from the office at least half the time, to one with more flexible options. This was a rare example of businesses forced to bend to the will of its employees.
A national survey found that in the post-pandemic period, American workers will work at least a quarter of their workdays from home, compared to 20% last year. Remote work has taken hold in the economy and is becoming a more important part of the lives of its workers.
It’s likely that this phenomenon will continue to grow, considering the massive demand for labor. Workers have the power to enforce change. Businesses know that to get new talent and retain their present workers, they have to embrace remote work. Nicholas Bloom, an expert on remote work, has even suggested that a recession would not derail remote work, because by this time it has become so entrenched that it will be difficult to go back.
There remains a gulf between the demands of workers and the desires of their employees. For instance, workers would like to work at least 2.4 days a week from home, whereas employees would like them to work just 1.2 days a week from home. The gap between the demands of college-educated workers and employees is just half a day, but that remains a significant gap.
The survey gave an intriguing picture of the state of play. Asked what they would do if their employer asked them to work five days a week in the office, 6% of workers said they’d quit. 36% said they would start looking for another job. Of those workers who are employed, 60% said they would consider a job that allowed them to work from home at four to five days a week.
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