An RTO Clash Is Coming for Employers Eager to Bring Back Workers
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- After many false starts, corporate America is gearing up to bring more workers back to the office—only to once again have plans collide with rising virus cases and uncertainty about a new variant.
Wells Fargo & Co., American Express Co., Google, and Ford Motor Co. are among the companies that have indicated that much of their white-collar staff will doff their sweatpants and get back to their desks sometime in January. The new year had supplanted Labor Day as the return marker for many employers after the delta variant swept through the country during the late summer.
The return had already been set to bring clashes between bosses who are eager to bring employees together and workers who have grown accustomed to the flexibility of working from home. Now, the timing is a gamble as Covid-19 cases climb in much of the U.S. and people are set to be gathering indoors for holiday celebrations. The unknowns of the omicron variant only add to the unease.
For employers, it’s a juggle of balancing health concerns and a sense that it’s time to move on from almost two years of remote work. Vaccines are now available to all but the youngest children, easing fears among some parents. More than half of companies are set to require shots in the workplace. Other aspects of normal life, from travel to dining out, have largely resumed. Yet any mismanagement of the RTO process can hurt employee engagement, turnover, and wellbeing.
“There’s a reckoning coming on what the new normal is going to be and we’re reaching a point where we’re going to have to define it—if not in January, then soon,” says Mark Royal, a senior director at consultancy Korn Ferry Advisory. “And it’s likely to require some adjustments on the part of both companies and individuals in terms of expectations.”
Some companies are already making adjustments. Apple Inc. recently decided to delay the return of corporate staff to its Cupertino, California, headquarters from January to Feb. 1, without giving a specific rationale on the timing. Many employers have given themselves wiggle room by saying January is the earliest they’ll want people back. Google and others have promised to give staffers an update 30 days before they’re supposed to return, which suggests some sort of notice should be coming soon.
Most back-to-office decisions “were made when cases were on a sustained decline, and now they have started to go up again in certain areas,” says William Schaffner, an infectious-disease professor at Vanderbilt University. “We’re concerned about another post-holiday surge. If we get another uptick in cases, their plans should be put on hold.”
Any further RTO delays could go over well among the legions of rank-and-file employees who enjoy the flexibility afforded by working from home all week. But they won’t please senior management, many of whom think collaboration and culture have suffered during the extended stretch of remote work and remain frustrated by the whiplash effect of making and remaking corporate policies.
Nearly half of executives want to work from the office every day, but just 17% of employees do, according to an ongoing survey of more than 10,500 white-collar workers in a half-dozen countries by the Future Forum, a research consortium sponsored by Slack Technologies. Even hybrid schedules are contentious: Three out of four execs say they want people in the office at least three days a week, compared with one-third of employees who prefer such a schedule.
The attitudes of office diehards who want butts in seats fly in the face of a growing body of research that’s found remote workers to be just as productive as cubicle dwellers. And it’s not just managers who can be misguided: 42% of people never worked at home before Covid, according to research from Boston College sociologist Wen Fan, and thus only have the highly fraught pandemic experience as a frame of reference for what it’s like.
Some companies welcomed employees back to the office months ago, among them Wall Street giants like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., whose leaders have made no secret of their desire for a full-throttle return. Back in June, Morgan Stanley chief James Gorman expressed frustration that New Yorkers were dining inside restaurants but avoiding their offices.
But January will serve as more of a proving ground for some corporations’ increasingly malleable approaches to what, where, and when work gets done. Wells Fargo, which employs more than 253,000 people, will begin its formal RTO Jan. 10. Google, which has some 150,000 staffers, has said its voluntary work from home policy extends until that date.
“Our schedules will mostly resemble our pre-pandemic working approach, with additional flexibility,” Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer Charlie Scharf said in a memo to employees earlier this year. “Use this time to plan for any necessary changes to your personal routines.” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said employees will have 30 days’ notice “to make sure everyone has ample time to plan.” Left unsaid was whether that’s enough time to, say, find a reliable and affordable daycare provider amid a nationwide crisis in that industry.
American Express plans to start its new flex-work policy “at the earliest” on Jan. 24. Individual teams will largely determine how often staff comes in—a common approach nowadays—with a “large majority” of its workforce on hybrid schedules, CEO Steve Squeri said in an October memo. Ford has also said its RTO will occur no earlier than January, telling its office workers to come in only when in-person collaboration is required, in the hope that such leniency can help the automaker attract and retain more tech-savvy workers.
As of Dec. 1, the companies haven’t given any indication that the omicron variant would delay their January timetable.
Other companies have kicked the can well down the road. Monday.com, which makes workforce collaboration software, has extended its remote-work policy until September 2022 “to allow employees enough time to make plans and adjust their lives,” says Oshrat Binyamin, vice president of human resources.
What, exactly, defines “enough time” could determine whether companies bounce back in 2022, endure more backtracking, or get swept up in the Great Resignation.
“The question,” Korn Ferry’s Royal said, “isn’t whether we should ever be back in the office—but should we be back now?”
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