The Push to Return to Work

Lone figure walking through Reagan International Airport
Credit: Kevin Lamarque - Reuters / stock.adobe.com

As vaccination rates rise across America, some corporate leaders are itching to get people back to the office.

Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman turned heads earlier this month when, at an investment conference, he said he will be "very disappointed if people can’t find their way into the office” by Labor Day of this year. After that date, he continued, “we’ll have a different kind of conversation.”

It was one of the boldest declarations yet that some companies might be less open to remote work now that the pandemic is receding domestically. In fact, a study by workplace platform software company Robin found that the in-office workforce increased by 40% in the U.S. in May.

For now, white collar office workers are returning at slower pace than other fields. The Robin study found that construction, hospitality and utilities are the three industries seeing the most people returning to the office. Government positions are also seeing a notable return.

Security company Kastle Systems, though, says just over three out of 10 white-collar employees are currently working at the office, based on access card sweeps averaged together from in 10 major U.S. cities.

As happy as people are to see stay-at-home orders ending, getting them back to the office is a tightrope walk for employers. A Microsoft survey of over 31,000 employees in 31 markets around the world found that 41% are already thinking about leaving their jobs. And a Prudential post-pandemic survey found that one in three American workers would not want to work for an employer that required them to be onsite full time.

That same Kastle survey found that 73% of workers felt employers should continue to offer and expand remote-work options in the post-pandemic world.

“It is very likely that the push by employers to have employees back in the office will result in some employees leaving their jobs,” says Brandon Smith, a professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “We are already seeing this trend emerge and it is largely being driven by a desire of employees to lower their total commute time to work. Employees with commutes of 45 minutes or longer are likely to be the greatest risk of departure to employers.”

About a quarter of the potential job seekers said better compensation is their goal, but that’s an area of concern for some employers, like Morgan Stanley. Why, they argue, should you earn big city rates, which take cost of living into account, if you’re working from somewhere that’s significantly cheaper?

"If you want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York," Gorman said. "None of this 'I'm in Colorado...and getting paid like I'm sitting in New York City.' Sorry. That doesn't work."

Morgan Stanley’s not the only company finding itself at odds with employees as it tries to get back to normal. Apple employees spoke out earlier this month against a policy that would require them to return to the office three days a week – Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays - starting in September.

Apple, before 2020’s health crisis, was famous for discouraging employees from working at home. But even the concession to allow two days per week, as well as up to two weeks a year pending manager approval, fell flat.

“Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,” staff members replied in a letter to management. “Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating. … It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

As resistance increases, some companies are tempering their return-to-work policies.

Amazon, in March, said it hopes to “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline” with some employees returning to the office this summer and most staff back at the office by the fall. In June, it backtracked – saying employees would only need to be there three days a week, with an option to work from home the other two.

“Like all companies and organizations around the world, we’re managing every stage of this pandemic for the first time, learning and evolving as we go,” the company said in a blog post.

Facebook, meanwhile, has announced that all workers can request to work remotely full-time after the pandemic. And Twitter and Square are letting employees work from home “forever.” 

“I don't believe the change in employee's preferences is being driven exclusively by employers pushing to get workers back in the office,” says Tom Smith, associate professor in the Practice of Finance at the Goizueta Business School. “Some people clearly prefer the gig-economy style of living and the costs and benefits that come with that style. If firms have difficulty finding workers to come to the office, the market will adjust by pushing up wages or other compensation for employees willing to come back to the physical office. The labor market is not magic, but it will respond to signals from employees and employers.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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