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With COVID-19 case numbers in decline, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman wants to start seeing more employees around the halls of the company’s midtown Manhattan headquarters.
“If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office. And we want you in the office,” Gorman said at a June 14 investing conference. “By Labor Day, I’ll be very disappointed if people haven’t found their way into the office, and then we’ll have a different kind of conversation.”
Gorman’s making his expectations pretty clear. He also seems to be implying that employees who don’t return to in-person work could face some serious consequences, and maybe even lose their jobs.
Recent data suggests that at least some of those employees would be fine with that.
A lot of employees aren’t that eager to head back to the office, even when the coronavirus pandemic is safely and fully in the rearview. We’ve known that for a while. But, with the economy slowly recovering and more employment options likely on the horizon, some employees might be willing to walk away from their current job if they don’t have the flexibility to work remotely.
In April, for example, WorldatWork and SalesGlobe conducted a survey focused on employer plans and employee perceptions regarding COVID-19. More than three-quarters of respondents said they would like to continue working remotely at least part-time, and 32% indicated they would not return to work in person or would seek out new job opportunities if their current employer opted to put an end to remote work post-pandemic.
Other recent surveys reveal similarly strong feelings about remote work.
A FlexJobs survey conducted in April saw 58% of workers saying they would “absolutely” look for other employment if they couldn’t go on working remotely in their current job.
A month later, Morning Consult found 40% of 1,000 workers saying they would consider quitting their jobs if they weren’t allowed to work remotely at least part of the time going forward.
Of course, there’s a big difference between deciding to start looking for a new job and suddenly leaving your current one without having another gig lined up.
The coronavirus pandemic is just starting to recede. So it’s too early to say whether meaningful numbers of employees are taking that leap, or will be soon. But employers should be careful to address the concerns of those employees with reservations about returning to the office, or risk losing them — if not now, then eventually.
The key lies in offering flexible work options, said Dave Ulrich, a professor of business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
“This means that leaders and organizations should engage with their employees to discover the work arrangement that works for both the employee and the organization,” said Ulrich, who is also co-founder of the RBL Group.
“The answer may differ for each employee, ranging from full-time at home versus full-time in the office, or some hybrid. Employees will stay at the organization that cares for them and offers [ways to] personalize their work arrangement. So, hear your employees, find out what they want and need, and help them discover arrangements that work for them.”
Some remote employees might view mandates to return to the office as “a betrayal of the trust they feel they’ve earned,” added Mary Ann Sardone, career market business leader at Mercer.
“Many employers have experienced increased engagement and established positive trust and goodwill with employees through their COVID-19 responses,” said Sardone, noting that a 2020 Mercer and AECOM study found more than 50% of employees saying they would consider switching employers if flexibility is not maintained post-pandemic.
“So, maintaining that positive employee experience through the implementation of new working models is critical. Employers should seek to redefine the parameters for flexibility in the future by engaging the workforce in their needs and views on working flexibly.”
Employees have shown tremendous resilience throughout the pandemic, a 16-month stretch that has shown that “a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t what workers want or need,” Sardone said. “Whether it’s providing options that are appropriate for the work being performed or a gradual transition to more in-office time, enabling [your employees to have] some control and flexibility signals continued trust and partnership that was so valued during the pandemic.”
About the Author
Mark McGraw is the managing editor of Workspan.