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Employee experience deteriorates as organizations demand a return to the office

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan April 20, 2022
Knowledge workers are coming under pressure to get back to their office desks, setting up tension between employers and employees that can't possibly end well.


Employee experience scores are plummeting for knowledge workers who have been told to return to the office full-time in the Vaccine Economy and for those who do not have the flexibility to set their own work schedules. 

That’s one of the headline findings from a global study conducted by Future Forum, a consortium set up by Slack - alongside Boston Consulting Group, Miller Knoll and MLT -  to help organizations re-imagine themselves for a digital-first workplace. The study polled 10,818 knowledge workers in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK between January 27 - February 21, 2022. 

The study found that more than a third (34%) of knowledge workers have now gone back to working in an office five days a week, the largest share since the onset of the COVID crisis that saw a mass societal shift to working from home. The number of employees working in hybrid arrangements has now dropped from over 50%, the level detected during the last quarterly poll in November 2021, to 45%.

The percentages inevitably vary country-by-country. Over half of knowledge workers in Japan (50.9%) have returned to the office full-time, with only 9% now fully-remote working. In the US, just over a third (34.7%) are back at their office desks, while in the UK that figure drops to just over a quarter (25.7%).

But overall, the drive to get employees back in the building is having a highly negative impact on employee experience, with work-related stress and anxiety at its worst since June 2020 in every country, except France and Japan. Those who have been summoned back to the office aren’t happy, with 55% saying that they want to work flexibly at least part of the time.

And there’s an accusation of double standards at play with non-executive employees twice as likely to be told that they need to get back to their office desks than their executive bosses. The study found that 35% of non-executives surveyed are back to making the five-day-a-week commute, compared to only 19% of executives. Work/life balances among those non-executives is now rated 40% worse than their superiors, while their level of work-related stress is twice as high as that of their managers.

What employees are now looking for most is flexibility of when they work - 94% of respondents cite schedule flexibility as more important than location flexibility, although 79% are also looking for that.

The problem is that employers are not providing that flexibility. More than half (51%) of knowledge workers say their company doesn’t provide flexible working hours, while nearly two-thirds (65%) complain that they personally have little to no ability to adjust their hours from a pre-set schedule, apart from exceptional events such as medical appointments, funerals etc.

Faced with all this, knowledge workers who aren’t able to set their own work hours are three times more likely to ‘definitely’ look for a new job, another sign of the so-called Great Resignation. This is likely to be seen most obviously among women, people of color and working parents, particularly mothers. Over half of women (58%) say they want to work flexibly at least three days a week.

My take

There’s no question that we’re at an interesting stage in the Future of Work debate. The wholesale shift to working from home that was necessary at the height of the pandemic is now giving way to demands from many quarters for a shift back to the ‘old ways’.

The crisis is over, runs the deeply flawed argument, despite thousands of people still passing away every week from COVID and large tranches of the population in various countries still not vaccinated for fear that Bill Gates is going to alter their DNA and turn them into zombies. But if the crisis is over, then we can drop the ‘safety-first’ mindset that sent us all to our Zoom accounts.

It’s a mentality that crosses private and public sectors. In the UK this week, government ministers have demanded that administrators in the British Civil Service get back into their offices, writing to senior officials to “issue a clear message to civil servants in your department to ensure a rapid return to the office”, this being necessary - apparently - “to realise the benefits of face-to-face collaborative working and the wider benefits for the economy”.

A related comment however provides a different - and more realistic - interpretation of the motivations at play here as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson told the media that the government wants to see “taxpayer-funded buildings” being used:

Clearly the Prime Minister feels that it is important that we make best use of taxpayer-funded departments which are not returning, currently, to the levels we saw before the pandemic.

That’s a variant on a question that diginomica raised last year, citing Tech's towering challenge - if the future is Working From Home, what are we going to do with all those skyscrapers we bought?.

We’ve seen various tech firms adopt different policies about getting back to those hi-rise castles in the sky. Salesforce, Slack’s parent company, has been at the forefront of those firms pitching safe returns to the office. Back in April last year, Chief People Officer Brent Hyder confirmed the re-opening of the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, adding that the firm is taking a phased approach here:

With a broad global footprint, we’re looking at each location uniquely based on government guidance, input from public health officials and medical experts, insight from our local leadership team, and a COVID risk rating, which is a comprehensive analysis of local case and testing data. Reopening will not look the same everywhere, and we’re implementing new strategies to safely give our employees the connection and collaboration they need to be successful. 

Other firms have also been adapting their thinking. Google wants some of its people back to the office this month. The firm had previously delayed its return to the building date from October last year - the Delta variant put paid to that. The firm’s advising returnees to get a vaccine shot, but that won’t be mandatory, a fact that might give people food for thought. Still, if US employees do go back and commit to a certain number of commutes per month, they are in line for an e-scooter subscription, so that’s good, isn’t it?

It was interesting this week to see Deloitte revise its thinking, announcing it will exit a building in its London campus next month, coming on the back of a previous decision not to re-open a number of other offices as well as shuttering a digital hub. According to the Financial Times, a recent staff survey found that the majority of Deloitte staff don’t want to come into the office more than two days a week. That being the case, Deloitte has adapted to meet those needs, something that more and more organizations will need to do.

That said, such change won’t come easily to some. The right-leaning mainstream media in both the US and UK are united in an ill-informed determination that a return to the office is the only way forward. This week I found myself snorting out loud with derision at an opinion article in the Daily Mail by Luke Johnson, founder of Risk Capital Partners, who declared that people have become “addicted” to working from home:

They have lost the habit of commuting and, perhaps, got rather too used to staying in their pyjamas until a Zoom meeting dictates otherwise. They enjoy having constant access to the kitchen and the biscuit tin, or the chance to wander out into the garden to smell the roses whenever they fancy, while relishing being able to idly scroll on their mobile phone without fear of a boss's wandering eyes. And, of course, they find they are able to spend more time with their partner or offspring…The fact is that if people don't go to their workplace, the work doesn't get done.

To which I say, what rot! (And no, I’m not providing the Daily Mail with any additional traffic so I’m not including the link to this nonsense!)

The world has moved on and the likes of Johnson  - both Boris and Luke - are going to have to come to terms with it. This Future Forum study makes clear that organizational tensions are growing. There will come a reckoning at some point - and the Great Resignation suggests that it’s not that far off. Time to pick which side of history you want your business to be on!


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