| Jul 27, 2022

Why Are Workers and Employers So Divided Over Returning to the Office?

Businesses are facing the need to make a clear call on the future of remote and hybrid working models. What they decide may draw the lines in a new battle for workers’ civil rights.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, roughly 35 percent of workers went remote. Now the number of employees working from home (WFH) is a shadow of that figure at 7.7 percent. People are going back to the office but the disconnect between what employers want and what workers feel about this development is massive. The reasons are multifaceted and not as simple as you might initially think.

Generational Gaps and Race

One element potentially driving the perception gap is generational disparity, which in turn is connected to race. Older white men, who tend to be in favor of getting people back into the office, make up 62% of the boards at Fortunate 500 companies. These leaders are not accustomed to remote management and worry that they cannot build rapport or connection without face-to-face interactions. They may struggle to abandon onsite work simply because they are more comfortable in offices and believe that in-person is “just how you do business.” 

They may also be less aware or perhaps even unwilling to acknowledge that remote work tends to benefit people of color and those with children. 

Some leaders, such as LinkedIn’s first chief HR officer, Steve Cadigan, argue that younger millennials and Gen Zers don’t have the commitment to organizations traditionally seen in older generations. For these leaders, technology has made it more difficult for young workers to accept legacy modes of operation and communication. Harsher critics connect this use of technology to outright laziness

Leadership Failures and Distrust

But the seeds of any lack of commitment may have been sown by leaders’ own hands. Executive failures such as the too-quick, disgenuous adoption of diversity and inclusion efforts have made many workers wary of the corporate environment. Many leaders are also not following through on the policies or ultimatums they issued to workers about returning to the office. Of those who came in on fewer days than instructed, 43.2% said they suffered no consequences. Just 6.3% of employees were terminated following a warning. 

In some cases, this lack of follow-through may be due to poor communication, disciplinary protocols, or other issues. In others, it may be a result of leadership attempting to appear connected and open with their employees. Prabhakar Raghavan, senior vice president of Google, notably asserted that higher-ups at his company “do not expect a 100 percent fidelity to the 3-2 hybrid workweek 24×7.” With this wishy-washy messaging in the background, only 49% of workers who were due to go back to the office are going in five days a week. 

To make matters worse, some leaders are creating a double standard: they preach presenteeism and expect the right to micromanage but take advantage of their own power to work remotely. Non-executive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to be working from the office five days a week. Workers might be rebelling as a matter of principle, especially given they have work-life balance scores 40% worse than their bosses. Former HR chief at Google, Laszlo Bock, said WFH personnel would be at a disadvantage for improved pay, promotions, and better assignments.


Anticipated Economic Hardship

With over two-thirds of economists predicting that the United States will enter a recession in 2023, companies are preemptively trying to cut back on staff. But some leaders who are giving employees the ultimatum to come back or quit may be protecting their reputations. It arguably looks better for businesses if employees leave of their own free will rather than as a result of companies’ economic difficulties.

Meanwhile, workers are looking for ways to manage inflation, which reached 9.1% in July 2022 the highest rate since 1981. Although some may want to get back to working onsite, they may be selecting hybrid or remote options to save on commuting and other expenses. For working parents, the flexibility of working from home can dramatically affect childcare costs. These average $216 per week per infant and $175 for older (preschool and elementary) children. Sixty-two percent of parents say the pandemic has made paying for childcare harder.

Regional differences complicate the issue. Many urban-based businesses will suffer as people take advantage of WFH to relocate to rural locations. Leaders may insist workers return to the office because they understand the devastating consequences an exodus would have on local communities. Executives such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and James Gorman of Morgan Stanley have been vocal about not paying workers in different areas the same rate

Some companies, however, are going remote because they realize their team cohesion is strong enough to adapt. These businesses are confident that if they get rid of their campuses to save money they still can be productive and competitive. They may be particularly supportive of WFH if they can connect the shift to existing corporate or social values, such as the reduction of commute-related pollution, or to organizational growth

Logistical Woes

Logistics may be the final piece of the WFH puzzle. Leaders can find it hard to coordinate workers’ schedules under hybrid or remote models, both locally and across timezones. At the same time, they may have difficulty justifying why workers have to be present on specific days over others, with employees preferring to come in based on need rather than a calendar. Some businesses also may find it difficult to oversee new technological networks and policies, relocate, or even safeguard hardware.

Collaboration the Foundation for Success

The future of hybrid/remote work is still uncertain. Even as some executives anticipate that we will be back at the office in up to five years, others are convinced that WFH will be at the heart of a new civil rights battle and will survive with the support of new recession-borne startups. In this messy environment, each company has to decide for itself in which direction to go. Providing a clear rationale about the chosen path and reaching the decision collaboratively will be essential to building the unity necessary for competitive operations.

Wanda Thibodeaux

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux is a freelance writer, editor, and podcast host based in Eagan, MN. view profile


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