Why They Won’t Return

Why They Won’t Return

Employees are even ready to resign than forego the WFH advantage, and there’s much more to it than the usual ‘home comfort and work-life balance’ angle

By now, we are all aware that the pandemic-induced work-from-home (WFH) has gradually given way to a fast-evolving hybrid model and the improved COVID scenario has finally inspired businesses to call their people back to the office. A lot of analysis is going on to find out the best possible hybrid solution. None seem to have struck the right balance yet. And, amidst all this, a new development has added to the overall confusion. Although several mid-pandemic surveys last year projected that employees were looking forward to a couple of days at the office every week once the new normal sets in –it now looks like the majority don’t want to return to offices ever again.

This is a new situation; one that has thrown HR plans off gear. It was challenging to seamlessly shift millions of workers across the globe to the remote working mode. But now it seems calling them back would be an even greater challenge. And the problem is real. People are even ready to resign than forego the WFH advantage, and the high demand for skilled professionals prevents organisations from taking strict measures.

Why won’t they return? What is intriguing is that surveys reveal it is not always for the most obvious reason – the comforts of home and work-life balance. That is still a major reason, but more complex factors are at play.

It is no longer about the virus

People have more-or-less learnt to commute and live with the Coronascare now. They are attending social events and festivals in hordes, visiting shopping malls, eating out with vengeance, and going to the movies. Google has just published its Covid-19 Community Mobility Reports map by analysing data from users’ location history around the globe from 17 February 2020 till3 March 2022. It shows community movement during the pandemic. As per the map, recreational movements dipped the lowest in India till mid-October 2021. However, the trend had reversed during mid-October to December 2021when recreational movements overtook the movement to workplaces.

James Gorman,CEO of Morgan Stanley, had articulated his anxiety in 2021 itself when he declared: “If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office. And we want you in the office.”

Obviously, it is not the fear of COVID that is keeping them away from the office now.

Growing sense of inequality

Inequality seems to be the biggest factor. Though the hybrid model was supposed to provide the best of both worlds, it is backfiring in unexpected ways. Many who have returned to their offices partially or fully now realize that while they sit forlorn in empty offices, other team members are still remote – and all communication is still happening online. This means they are investing commute time, expense, and effort without any logical advantage, and without the enthusiasm in-person office exchanges were supposed to spark off. Even if the workers are rotated – anyone who is attending office on a particular day is having to battle this resentment stemming from inequality. Everyone knows that the remote colleagues are not at fault, yet that does not better the system. As a result, serious demotivation is setting in.

New normal still not normal enough

Even when workers have colleagues around them, the pandemic scare demands all possible precautions. And that means social distancing, mandatory separation, common spaces and lounges being restricted, cafeterias maintaining strict personal safety protocols, partitions, and cubicles even in offices that were formerly open workspaces – all the hassles one would not like to encounter. Especially since meetings are mostly taking place over collaborative platforms between people sitting in the same building. Even in industries that were earlier not in the digital mode, workers are now used to pinging each other over messaging tools. With employers harping on “office culture” being a big reason for getting back to the office, employees are questioning back: “So why do we take the trouble if the office is no longer that shared space for stimulating exchanges it used to be?” And there is no answer.

Losing the remote talent advantage

A lot had been said about the virtues of the remote and hybrid. From the employer’s perspective, one very important advantage was tapping the remote talent pool from Tier-2 cities or semi-urban locations. This means organisations cannot simply sort out the inequality grudges by office-attending employees by summoning ALL employees back even if things turn “really” normal. Even if the return-to-office drive gets in full swing, these employees will always remain remote. And their number is by no means insignificant. Per Naukri.com data, Indian job seekers made over 3.2 million searches for remote jobs between July 2021 and February 2022, of which 57%opted for permanent remote jobs. In December 2021 alone, the search count was over 350,000. How do the organisations deal with them now?

Parity might take a hit

One possible scenario could be companies setting up offices in smaller cities catering to local talent – thus lifting the load off the metros. It will also bolster the non-metro economy and infrastructure. A proposed collaboration between the Union IT ministry and NASSCOM is already under the anvil to develop 100 smaller cities around India from this perspective. However, data connectivity would remain a challenge.

Some companies are already toying with the idea of location-based salary structures for remote employees. But no one is yet ready to test the waters in such a volatile market. However, dithering won’t solve the issue. Sooner or later companies will also have to cross the bridge regarding how to address performance management and cultural issues for a hybrid workforce. Till then, the hybrid scene will look fuzzy if workers are forced to attend office.

Force is counter productive

There is no denying the fact that employers are now showing signs of nerves because WFH has not affected productivity – which means they cannot put forth the fiscal angle to drive their people back to the office. That candid remark from the Morgan Stanley CEO is ample proof. Andrew Mawson, managing director of US management consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), clearly underscored this when he mentioned: “Employers have to realize that the genie is out of the bottle. Workers have seen that flexibility can work and bosses who are not sensitive to their employees’ needs will suffer accordingly.”

Employers are now saying this is not about productivity, but more about office culture and a sense of belonging. Some say there will no longer be any real connect among workers whom we only know from a screen. And some critics are even suggesting that this is all about utilizing office space that are lying vacant for over two years now. And yes – there are also talks of ‘better employee control’.Most managers do have trust issues with employees whom they can’t physically see. Some also fear that lack of face-time can create a lack of opportunity for learning and career advancement – especially for the juniors. So, now is the time for the bitter pill.

This ‘force’ angle might get out of hand because no company is clearly articulating their stand yet. This can lead to communication breakdown and consequent complete lack of trust. A McKinsey survey last year revealed that 40% of respondents were yet to hear about any vision from their organisations regarding the post-pandemic work model, and another 28% felt whatever they’ve heard were vague. The survey also reported that this lack of clear communication about the future also contributed to employee burnout as nearly half of the respondents admitting to symptoms of being burned out at work.

Image: Communication breakdown leads to lack of trust; Source: McKinsey & Co.

Law is on the employer’s side

Legally, no employee can rightfully refuse to return to office if so mandated. As long as government rules don’t prohibit the reopening of offices, reluctant employees do not have a choice. And companies are well within their lawful rights to take disciplinary action in such cases if they want to. Most companies are already specifying remote working guidelines in their employment contracts to include force majeure clauses.

However, it is not about a legal tussle. Both parties have valid points – and hence the stalemate. Some think the reopening of offices may have been a bit premature. Some also feel, after the stress and anxiety that employees bore for the last two years, they should be given a certain additional window to ease back into the grind even when things are ‘normal’.

Companies also need to plan more deeply about hybrid scheduling. Simply mandating the number of days to attend in a week on a rotational basis will not satisfy all – and neither will it facilitate optimum collaboration.

The road ahead is still not clear. Perhaps everyone needs a little more time to figure things out. But it is high time employers take a considerate and proactive stand before they lose more of their best talents.

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