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The return-to-office debate gets a reprieve, but will flexible work plans prevail?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 20, 2021
The return-to-office debate has an unwelcome reprieve, thanks to the Delta variant. But will we get better hybrid policies on the other side? I'm skeptical, but there is new data to consider. Here's my take on that - and what employers are overlooking.


Seems like yesterday, but it was back in June that I waded into the return-to-office debate, questioning the role of the office and its workplace myths.

That debate remained at a high pitch throughout the summer, into early August. Around that time, my colleague Derek du Preez called out employers in Leaders have lost control of the office - they need to realize choice is key.

Three weeks later, we have a bit of an exhale, a reprieve of sorts - courtesy the unsettling spread of the Delta variant. A host of employers pushed back return-to-office policies until 2022; more will follow.

Here's my percolating question: will we take advantage of this reprieve? Because as I see it, the so-called "visionary" hybrid work policies, issued with the expected self-congratulatory bluster, were mostly tepid disappointments. It was a PR celebration of baby steps. Plus: we still have pressing questions such as vaccination policies, a key data point in PwC's newly-issued report, PwC US Pulse Survey: Next in work.

Who is in control of office futures?

When I crashed Constellation Research's DisruptTV in May, I was skeptical that offices would be perceived as safe enough to return to in 2021. In my countdown of issues employers are overlooking, I included "ventilation." Amongst many unresolved health and safety questions, we really need a heightened understanding of indoor air ventilation - and how to evaluate its effectiveness. It's all a part of a language of pandemic/endemic management we need to learn. Yes, this kind of talk is a buzzkill. The upside? We figure out how to manage and defuse a health crisis, rather than yelling at each other about vaccination.

With that in mind, I'll review my underrated workforce issues - which employers now have time to address. But will they? Perhaps that's a question of leverage. When it comes to shaping the future of work, who is in control here? Management, or talent? In Leaders have lost control of the office - they need to realize choice is key, du Preez takes a scathing, but ultimately optimistic stance:

I truly believe that the tide has turned and job hunters now have a certain amount of control over what terms will be dictated in the future.

As I responded in my weekly hits/misses review, I'm not so sure:

I believe [Derek] is 100 percent right - when it comes to top performers and sought-after skill sets. I worry, however, about those who would blossom in remote settings, but may not get the opportunities if knee-jerk management habits hold sway.

The great resignation - myth or reality?

PR folks keep pinging me about the so-called "great resignation." Some of this data is hypothetical, based on surveys of employee plans. That doesn't mean they'll follow through on it; I'll believe that droves of employees are quitting Apple over return-to-office policies when I actually see it happening.

The "great resignation" phrase doesn't always mean the same thing. Example: this Inc. piece refers to 4 million quitting their jobs in April 2021. But the focus of this piece is low-wage retail workers. I'd argue the pathetically low wages of retail workers compared to cost of living is a huge factor driving this version of the "great resignation." For office workers, the great resignation is portrayed as a response to restrictions on remote work.

The PwC US Pulse survey found data points to back this up. Their survey includes executives from more than 70 percent of the Fortune 1000, and more than 1000 US employees:

  • 65% of employees said they are looking for a new job.
  • 88% of executives said their company is experiencing higher turnover than normal.

Do remote work policies factor in? A Bloomberg survey from June certainly implied as much. For now, I'll stick with my view: I believe sought-after office employees with marketable skills have plenty of options. I'm not sure the bulk of office workers have that flexibility. Interpreting the data raises issues: PwC concludes that "employee preferences for hybrid work are all over the place."

This type of interpretation gives employers justification for sticking with their current policies, since workers supposedly can't agree on what they want anyway. But when you drill in, you see that only about a third of workers want to be in the office almost entirely (this number excludes those whose role can't be done remotely). By my calculation, more than two-thirds of those surveyed want some type of hybrid. I wouldn't say that's "all over the place." To meet those diverse needs, however, we'll need something more flexible than current policies.

"Hybrid" work policies lack imagination

As I see it, there are crucial points missing from the return-to-office debate:

  • There is a lack of imagination being applied to what flexible work could look like (for desk-bound workers)
  • That failure of imagination has a dire consequence for employers and talent. I don't care how committed you are to diversity, if you can't flex workers from home, you're excluding huge swaths of talent, including the immuno-compromised, the disabled, and work-from-home parents.
  • Any debate on return-to-office should start by asking, "What is the office actually good for?" - Yes, some employers are making strides on that question, turning cubicles into collaborative spaces that suit today's circumstance. But:
  • We are unnecessarily limiting the definition of the office. There are "pop-up shops," why not pop-up offices, temporary "hot" locations, close-to-home workshares (and commute killers), and creative co-work spots (once it is safe to use them)?
  • Hybrid policies that require certain days in a central office reinforce the worst of modern work (commuting hauls), while excluding the potential to revitalize rural economies, as per Zoho's pitch for transnational localism - a small town approach to staffing up. If you have to be in a central office even one day a week, your geographic work range is inherently limited.
  • Contrary to remote work purists, I believe the office is good for certain things (team building, networking early in your career, mentoring). But questioning the office also means questioning mythologies employers cling to, such as: "We're more productive at the office," "We're more innovative at the office," or, my personal beef, "We need the office for culture-building." (I deconstructed the office culture myth last time around).

My take - hybrid work is personal

On DisruptTV, I did the full rundown of what employers are overlooking:

Here's the short version:

1. Hybrid is personal - one size doesn't fit all. I ran into one sexy enterprise software employer whose own data shows that the vast majority of their high-performing women strongly prefer working from home. Yet their "hybrid" office plan required several days a week at the central office. When I told them I wanted to explore that contradiction, they withdrew their PR interview offer.

2. We lack clear guidelines on ventilation. Most of us don't even know the right questions to ask about ventilation yet - room size, capacity, opening windows during the winter, etc.  It's very unlikely we're going to get to herd immunity, so ventilation will be a big factor in office safety, along with regular testing.

3. Stop the "culture and leadership happens at the office" BS. Is your leadership team really diverse enough to prove your office ladder-climbing is working? Everyone can see the photos on your executive team page. Maybe it's time to rethink those office-centric assumptions:

4. "Hot" offices in localized areas, for higher quality of life or rejuvenating under-served communities - as per above.

5. Hybrid is not a caste system - we do need to ensure work-from-home employees are on a level playing field when it comes to participation and promotion.

6. What is your scale back/retreat from the office plan - it's way too early in the Vaccine Economy to require employees to relocate back to central locations. If a regional outbreak happens, how quickly can we shift back to full remote?

I could have added something on vaccination, testing, and masking. Bottom line: I believe rapid testing can bridge the workplace gap between polarized views on vaccination and masking (the PwC US Pulse report documented the polarized view on vaccination policies). We're not there yet on ubiquitous/easy/accurate rapid testing, but if we can get there, proper ventilation and testing will bridge many gaps.

Some employers worry that truly flexible work will actually discriminate against remote workers, who won't be on an "even playing field." That showed up in the PwC data also. My view is different. As I noted, I'm not sure the current "you've been promoted" plan is working all that great. Second, putting remote workers on an even playing field is definitely a problem, but it's a problem to solve, not an excuse for the hybrid status quo.

I believe du Preez and I would agree on this point: employers that blaze a trail with flexible work will (hopefully) win out against their peers - not just in recruitment, but in market success. If that happens, then rigid central office policies will either become obsolete, or linger as an option for workers who prefer it. Choosing between distinct corporate cultures is useful for both sides.

As for remote workers who feel compelled to show up at the office to get in on promotions, I'd encourage a rethink. Perhaps that instinct of being left out is accurate. But perhaps you are being left out in a way that opens up a new way to excel.

For many of my peers, the way we excelled was not in the politics of promotion, but the creation of differentiated IP - either for our employers or ourselves. Sometimes finding yourself on the fringes points to a new way forward. I wouldn't have a career otherwise. Certainly not one that inspires me day in day out.

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