Bergmeyer design firm Vice President Rachel Zsembery applies a safe distancing message to a wall at the firms offices in Boston. AP
Deborah Lovich, Tribune News Service
With the Omicron surge subsiding, many business leaders are again planning to urge — and even demand — that their employees return to their pre-pandemic offices. It’s understandable: US businesses are paying for countless thousands of square feet of expensive office space across the country, much of which is now vacant.
But they’d be wise not to rush the office return. Most people who worked in offices prior to the pandemic are conflicted right now. They miss their colleagues and the amenities available “at work” — the coffee bar, access to high-speed copying machines and knowledgeable IT trouble-shooters — but they don’t miss the commute and they’re loving the freedom and flexibility remote and asynchronous work offers them.
That’s why business leaders should pay close attention to the recently released Winter 2021-22 Future Forum Pulse survey, part of a series the consortium has been conducting quarterly since June 2020.
The new survey captures the views of 10,737 knowledge workers from the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom who were surveyed last November, before Omicron went wild. At the time, many of those surveyed probably were contemplating or getting ready to return to their offices — planning when and how often they would.
The survey findings should give business leaders pause:
78% of respondents said they want location flexibility — that is, the option to regularly work from home, a co-working space close to home or some other location of their own choosing.
95% said they want schedule flexibility. This means getting rid of the rigid (9 to 5, 8 to 6, or whatever) workday schedule that existed pre-pandemic.
One of the advantages of flexible work, as we learned these last two years, is being able to set your own pace and schedule, at least on certain projects, and being able to do other things (laundry, shopping, cooking, tutoring the kids, exercising, or just chilling) in between.
The Future Forum data tell me that business leaders pushing employees to return to the office could be creating huge problems for themselves — problems few businesses are prepared to handle in today’s tight labour market, with record numbers of employee resignations in recent months.
If you don’t think things can get much worse, consider another stat from the Future Forum survey: 72% of the respondents who said they’re dissatisfied with the current level of flexibility they enjoy at work said they’ll likely be looking for a new job this year. Telling them to hightail it back to the office likely will hasten their exit.
There’s more to consider as well, especially for business leaders concerned with building a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Significant percentages of Black and Hispanic respondents said remote work has increased both their sense of belonging and their sense of being treated fairly at work. Since May 2021, Future Forum found, sense of belonging at work increased 24% for Black respondents and 32% for Hispanics, compared with only 5% for whites. Those are important gains business leaders shouldn’t want to lose.
The Future Forum survey also showed something else: that flex work enjoys its highest support among non-white workers, with 86% of Hispanics and 81% of Blacks, Asian-Americans and US residents of Asian descent favouring remote and hybrid work. They’re sending the bosses a message.
There’s already a clear disconnect between executive preferences and employee desires for flexible work. Many executives want to return to “the way things were.” Among workers, remote and hybrid work is strongly preferred.
The Omicron surge delayed plans for getting back together with colleagues, families and friends. The only silver lining is that it bought us more time to figure out who needs to return to the office, when and how.
There’s a lot at stake. Business leaders shouldn’t rush things or push too hard. Their employees appear ready to push back.
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