A good example is a recent column written by the CEO of a magazine in Washington, D.C., which stated that as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, if workers insist on continuing to work remotely, they may lose healthcare, etc. welfare. The staff’s response was to refuse to publish it for a day.
Although the CEO later apologized, she did not seem to be the only transition back to the office after tens of millions of employees were forced to work from home for more than a year. A recent survey of full-time business or government employees found that two-thirds of people said their employers either did not communicate the post-pandemic office strategy or just communicated vaguely.
As labor scholars, we are interested in understanding how workers handle this situation. Our recent research found that this inability to communicate clearly is hurting morale, culture, and retention.
We first started investigating workers’ pandemic experiences in July 2020, as shelter-in-place orders closed offices and remote work is common. At the time, we wanted to know how employees could use their newly acquired freedom to perform virtual work anywhere.
We analyzed data sets obtained by business and technical communications from surveys of its 585,000 active readers. It asked them if they planned to relocate in the next six months and shared their stories about why and where to relocate from.
After review, we received less than 3,000 responses, including 1,361 people who planned to relocate or recently relocated. We systematically coded these responses to understand their motivations and, based on the distance moved, to understand the extent to which they might need a continuous remote work policy.
We found that some of these employees will need to make comprehensive remote work arrangements based on their distance from the office, while the other will face longer commuting times. Throughout the process, many workers who moved during the pandemic explicitly or implicitly expected some degree of remote work.
In other words, many of these workers are assuming or promising that they will be able to continue working remotely at least some time after the pandemic is over. Or, if the employer disagrees, they seem willing to resign.
We want to see how these expectations are met as the pandemic begins to fade in March 2021. So we searched the online community on Reddit to see what the workers were saying. A forum proved particularly useful. A member asked: “Has your employer made remote work permanent, or is it still in progress?” and continued to share his experience. This article generated 101 responses, which detailed what the respective companies were doing.
Although these qualitative data are only a small sample and may not necessarily represent the entire U.S. population, these posts allow us to have a deeper understanding of workers’ feelings, which simple statistics cannot provide.
We found that the disconnect between employees and management started but went beyond the problems of the remote work policy itself. Broadly speaking, we found three recurring themes in these anonymous posts.
1. Breaching the promise of remote work
Others have also discovered that people are taking advantage of pandemic-related remote work opportunities to relocate to cities far enough away that people need to work remotely partly or full-time after returning to the office.
A recent survey by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found that nearly a quarter of employees are considering or planning to relocate more than 50 miles from their employer’s main office. The survey also found that 12% of people had taken such measures during the pandemic without finding a new job.
Our early findings indicate that some workers will quit their current jobs instead of abandoning their new workplaces if requested by employers, and we have seen this actually happen in March.
A worker plans to move from Phoenix to Tulsa with her fiance in order to rent a larger place at a lower rent in a remote area of her company. She later had to quit and move, even though “They told me they would allow me to work from home, and then said it was okay.”
Another employee said that the promise of remote work was only implicit, but when the leader “gave us a few months of gas, saying that we might continue to work from home and come in occasionally” and then change his mind, he still hopes to ask the employee Return to the office after vaccination.
One of the authors explained the research.
2. Confusing remote work policy
Another common problem that we read in employee reviews is that they are disappointed with their company’s remote ccwork policy—or lack of relevant policies.
Whether employees say they are temporarily away from the office, returning to the office, or still unsure, we found that nearly a quarter of the people in the sample stated that their leaders did not provide them with meaningful explanations for the reasons for pushing the policy. To make matters worse, these explanations are sometimes confusing or insulting.
A worker complained that the manager “want to sit in his seat because even though we have been doing [work at home] since March last year, we cannot be trusted”, adding: “I will give a notice on Monday. ”
Another company released a two-week timetable for returning everyone to the office. He complained: “Our leadership thinks that people are not working efficiently at home. Although as a company, we have achieved most of our goals for this year. …….Pointless.”
Recent survey results indicate that after prolonged office closures, it is only natural that employees need time to adjust to office life. Employers who quickly change the switch to recall workers and do so without a clear reason may appear deaf.
This shows that people lack trust in productivity at a time when many employees report that they are working harder than ever and are stressed by the increasing digital intensity at work (ie, the increasing number of online meetings and chats).
Even when the company says they do not need to return to the office, workers still blame them for their motives, which many employees describe as economically motivated.
“We want hybrid power,” one worker wrote. “I personally think that the company is not doing this for us…. I think they are aware of their efficiency and how much money they have saved.”
In our sample, only a small number of employees stated that their company asked for advice on what employees actually want from their remote work policy in the future. Given that leaders’ concerns about company culture are correct, we believe that they missed the critical opportunity to engage with employees on this issue and show that their policy reasons are more than just money and cents.
3. Corporate culture “BS”
Management gurus such as Peter Drucker and other scholars have discovered that corporate culture is very important for bringing employees together in an organization, especially in times of stress.
The culture of a company is essentially the values and beliefs shared among its members. This is more difficult to cultivate when everyone is working remotely.
This may be why corporate human resources executives list the maintenance of organizational culture as the top priority of the workforce in 2021.
However, many forum posts we reviewed indicate that employers’ efforts to do this by organizing team outings and other gatherings during the pandemic are actually driving employees away, and this kind of “cultural building” is not welcome