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Newly Remote Workers Face Reckoning As Back-To-Office Push Accelerates

In a year of so much discomfort, many workers have settled into the notion that remote work, perhaps an afterthought in years past, may actually work for them. Owners of office space are understandably nervous that the future for many people may include fewer commutes and, for companies, a corresponding need for less commercial office space.

But as increasingly positive vaccine news, especially in the United States, accelerates plans to return to offices, some workplace experts caution that expectations of more permanent remote work arrangements will come head-to-head with the notion, however unsupported, that workers are more productive within the office. David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Connecticut, told NPR a “day of reckoning” is coming for newly remote workers who left town or even moved to a different state during the pandemic. 

Before offices return to some kind of normal, companies need to craft new remote work policies.

Remote work, in other words, isn’t a foregone conclusion. The rest of 2020 will mark the beginning of a new normal for office workers and staffing policies, and analysts say many companies are just beginning to grapple with how they may institutionalize new remote work arrangements. As companies reintroduce staff to workplaces, true decisions about the future of more flexible, remote work will be made and codified, resulting in shifts in corporate real estate portfolios.

Cristina Banks, director of University of California Berkeley's Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, argues that the stress and suffering of workers during the pandemic will shift the balance of power between executives and workers, ultimately tilting a little bit toward workers, who have recently experienced what it’s like to be autonomous from headquarters. 

“Employees are coming in with more expectations that the employer should support their core needs,” she said. “Having more autonomy and more connection. Having more support. A better sense of fairness in the workplace. Whether the employer will meet those expectations, we’ll see. But organizations need their talent, and if the talent demands more, employers are going to start thinking more about these issues.”

“Lots of companies are strongly implying they want people back,” said Brian Kropp, Gartner's chief of research in the human resources practice. “If you don’t come back, you may not have a job. But very few will fire people if they don’t come back. What’s more likely is that remote employees will get smaller raises, managers will be biased, and they’ll be less likely to get promotion and more likely to be passed over for cool projects. They won’t get fired, but their carer growth is much more likely to stall.” 

Companies currently are mixed, with some professing to be 100% remote going forward, and others like Reddit and Microsoft taking a hybrid approach, but that may shift.

What’s important right now is how the idea of equity gets folded into discussions of permanent remote work policy, said Liz Burow, a workspace consultant and former vice president of workplace strategy at WeWork. While women, particularly, have struggled juggling increased work and childcare responsibilities while working remotely during the pandemic, many have enjoyed having more time with family and, when schools and work resume their normal pace, hope they can continue to work remotely. For that to work, Burow said, companies need to have the right tech tools for conference calls — the right acoustics and tech are “table stakes” — and figure out how remote workers can participate in ad-hoc meetings. 

“The smartest companies are developing new norms and policies trying to understand the needs of remote employees,” she said. 

Gartner's Kropp takes it one step further. The most forward-thinking companies aren’t merely thinking about who’s working where or their demand for office space, but asking what exactly office space should be for and how it should function. 

“The office used to be a place where we all banged our keyboards and worked together,” he said. “The smartest companies asking a different question: ‘What job does my real estate need to do for me?’” 

Workplace experts predict that remote workers will face bias from management, which will result in decreased career prospects.

Recent surveys show mixed attitudes around returning to the office. A PwC survey from mid-January of 1,200 U.S. workers found 29% want to be remote five days a week, and 55% want to be remote three days of the week; a parallel query of managers, however, found 68% believe workers should be in the office three days a week, with 65% considering it “very important” to boosting productivity.

Attitudes, however, are rapidly shifting. A study released last week by Eden Workplace, an office management software solution, discovered that 85% of workers want to return to the office, with more than half (52%) listing socialization as a key reason. But the attitudes toward health and safety were also telling; 1 in 4 want colleagues demoted or even fired for breaking Covid-19 rules at the office, and 80% expect a social stigma against those who refuse vaccination. That strong reaction suggests health concerns may play a key part in wariness around the office; as those concerns hopefully dissipate with increased vaccinations and less risk, there may be even stronger sentiment toward getting back to pre-pandemic workplace arrangements. 

Gartner’s Kropp said that cost, in addition to peer sentiment, will play a key role in how companies bring remote workers back. In a more hybrid situation where companies are back in the office a few days of the week, or when certain positions may only be required to be in the office for a week every month, companies can afford to let someone work remotely and regularly fly in. Going back-and-forth once or twice a month, he said, is typically still cheaper than the cost of office space for a single worker. But, when workers may be asked to spend more time in the office, they enter a “gray area.” Suddenly, that cost-benefit doesn’t work out, and remote becomes the more expensive option. 

“Companies just aren’t sure what to do in terms of forcing these remote workers back,” he said. “What’s really interesting is that economists predict that between, say, Q2 2021 and the first quarter of 2022, when offices really open back up, we may see GDP growth of between 6 and 10% a quarter. Companies want to take advantage of that growth potential, not fire key talent.”

There’s a sense that we’ve really just started to understand the complexity of the remote shift. Offices went from being all in person to being all remote; now, a coming third shift, full of complexity, mixed situations and remote management, will last for years, Kropp said.

Since managers believe that office employees are better performers — Kropp underscored that, on average, the data doesn’t support that assertion — there will always be a pro-office bias to battle. 

“We found, via a series of statistical analyses, that 60% of managers believe in-office workers have higher performance, with the remaining 40% saying in-office and remote perform similarly,” he said. “Management is just more likely to give a raise to someone who comes in, even if they perform just as well as a remote colleague.”

While offices wrestle with the right balance, it’s important to examine what’s at stake, and realize that remote work, if implemented right, can both improve performance, encourage a more diverse workforce and help any employees with caregiving responsibilities. Burow said it’s imperative companies think about biases toward remote workers — lower salaries and fewer career opportunities — and make any future policies a platform to increase, rather than harm, equity. 

“This is our chance, people have been pounding their fists on the table about this stuff for years, and we just needed to all be out of the office at the same time,” Burow said. “It’s possible to do this right and craft the right rules. It’s time for a refresh.”