‘The Great Executive-Employee Disconnect’: What My Fellow Executives Should Know About Returning to the Office
When a government agency in the Philippines, where we have a number of offices, mandated that our employees return to the office at the beginning of last month, I immediately sensed reluctance, even a measure of resistance among many of our teams. Although the government later allowed companies to apply for a partial work-from-home arrangement, that exception came with a looming expiration date set for this September.
Being a Chief Executive of an outsourcing company which operates several sites in the Philippines, I began searching for case studies to bolster our argument for a permanent work-from-home setup. In my search ‘though I was surprised to find that even the most progressive technology companies, the biggest actually, are all for having their employees return to the office.
Case in point: Apple.
“I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to being together again.” — Tim Cook (to Apple employees)
I could palpably sense Apple’s Chief Executive’s enthusiasm in this statement as I read the memo outlining the tech giant’s return-to-office plan. Starting last April 11, Apple employees were expected to return to the office at least once a week and then, eventually, three days a week by May 23.
The iPhone maker is not the only company adopting a simultaneous in-office and remote work approach. Here is what I found in my search:
- Last month, Google announced that it would end its voluntary work-from-home policy in various U.S. locations and started transitioning to a thrice-a-week in-office arrangement on April 4.
- Twitter, Microsoft, and Meta (Facebook) have already jump-started their transition to a hybrid approach in February and March, implementing their respective flexible scheduling options.
- Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs maintains a firm stance against hybrid arrangements and demands that all their employees work in the office five days a week.
- Following President Joe Biden’s recent statement, many federal employees may also soon return to the office.
- As of March, the average office occupancy rate in 10 U.S. cities is 38.0% (from 17.5% in December 2021).
- A 2021 CBRE survey found that 87% of large corporations planned to adopt a hybrid arrangement post-pandemic. After pushing back several times last year, many other multinational players in the tech and financial sectors are finally accelerating their plans to gradually fill their offices at least a few times a week.
From what I gather, many C-suite executives appear to be thrilled at the prospect of America’s ‘Great Return’ to the office.
However, I have one doubt: Does the enthusiasm spill out of the boardroom? Apparently not.
‘The Great Executive-Employee Disconnect’
After more than two years of working from home, U.S. employees are not as excited as their bosses to go back to the office. According to Slack’s Future Forum report, executives are almost three times more likely than non-executive employees to want to return to the office at least three to five times a week.
And among the executives who have primarily worked remotely since the pandemic, 44% said they wanted to return to the office daily. In comparison, only 17% of non-executive employees said they wanted to come to the office full-time.
The disparity was extensive, so much so that the report could have possibly coined a breakthrough workplace trend next to “The Great Resignation:” “The Great Executive-Employee Disconnect.”
What Is Behind the Disparity?
Industry analysts see several factors at play, but two stood out to me:
A Gap in Employee Experience
According to the Future Forum report, a sense of belonging, flexibility, and work-life balance contribute to employees’ overall job satisfaction. But comparing the day-to-day lives of employees and executives, the latter has the upper hand in achieving a more positive experience in the workplace.
For many companies, a C-suite executive’s day involves delegation, tangible teamwork, networking, and socialization activities. Even without considering the obvious pay differential, they also have a more flexible schedule and enjoy convenient perks, such as private offices and dedicated parking spaces.
On the other hand, most workers spend the entire day tied to their respective desks. Outside office hours, these same employees also attend to other pressing responsibilities, such as running errands, childcare, and making ends meet.
These sharp contrasts between the separate realities of the C-suite and non-executives can partly explain why the overall job satisfaction of executives is 62% higher than employees. It isn’t simply about what happens in the office, but what happens before and after as well. And a beanbag and a pool table aren’t going to fill that gap.
Another factor driving the disconnect is the generational gap. We live in a time of a multigenerational workforce. Most companies have five different generations of workers bringing in distinct views, approaches, and work styles.
While differences in perspectives happen even among people of the same generation, the disparity is far more evident between the older and younger generations of employees.
Younger workers are more fluid and flexible with their work approaches and styles. Growing up surrounded by technology, they adapt to changes quickly and prefer a digital-first experience.
On the other hand, most older C-suite executives are inclined to follow existing rules and uphold structures. They also generally prefer face-to-face interactions and are cautious about change. Traditionalist executives, in particular, tend to have a “do not fix unless it’s broken” mindset.
But Is the Existing Work Model Broken?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call the traditional office-based model broken. Every organization is unique, so it’s always going to be a case-by-case scenario. But, generally, I would say that most conventional practices and mindsets of leaders and organizations need an overhaul, particularly when it comes to making decisions involving their workforce.
I find it alarming that 66% of C-suite executives will move forward with their return-to-office plans with little to no employee input. This is a dangerous path, especially as the labor market remains volatile. With employees holding more cards than ever, executives must pay close and thoughtful attention to what their employees want and need.
Unlike in the Philippines, where the government mandated a return to the office (RTO) for our industry, I was under the impression that U.S. businesses would take advantage of the freedom to give employees what they need. I would wish to have that same ability in all of our global locations. Unfortunately, I was compelled to call people back to the office on April 1 and will again do so by September.
Having said that, allow me to offer you a view of the other side of the fence so that you can strategize accordingly. Let’s take a deep dive into employees’ expectations about going back to the office.
Here’s What Employees Expect as They Return to the Office
#1: Upper Management Will Hear Employees Out on Why They Do Not Want To Return to the Office
One of the worst things that executives can do in the midst of today’s intense war for talent is to assume that they know what employees want. With 57% of workers open to switching jobs this year, companies that dismiss employee preferences risk losing large portions of their workforce, with their top performers being especially attractive targets for competitors.
Throughout the pandemic, workers have embraced new habits, beliefs, and priorities that have drastically — and even permanently — altered their outlooks and expectations. These expectations include a psychologically safe culture that fosters authentic and open communication between leaders and members.
Leaders must recognize that returning to the office will cause yet another significant disruption in the lives of many employees — who may still be adjusting to the initial impacts of the health crisis. As such, workers would naturally expect a dialogue.
They want their leaders to know what’s keeping them from going back to the office and have their concerns considered as the company designs hybrid work policies. Likewise, employees would want to hear what their leaders have to say in order to ensure that the directives consider the collective welfare of the organization and its members.
#2: Employees Will Resign if Pushed to Return
Working from home means a few more hours of sleep, time for household responsibilities, or even exercise for most employees instead of rushing through each morning. It means more time spent with their loved ones as opposed to lengthy commutes on crowded trains and buses. It means more cash in their pockets as they save on dining out, parking, tolls, and gas. On average, employees working from home save at least $5,000 more per year.
Although these benefits appear superficial to some, they fulfill deeper underlying needs. As Anthony Klotz puts it, people who joined “The Great Resignation” have found pandemic epiphanies, prompting them to reexamine their priorities.
Remote work options allow employees to put more time into things that hold more weight: health, family, leisure, passion, etc. If forced to give up all these completely, many are ready and willing to look for another employer, shift careers, freelance, or start a business.
#3: Executives Should Have Clear Policies in Place About Flexible or Hybrid Work
Most companies’ existing policies do not fit into flexible hybrid work models.
Questions such as, “How can a mix of virtual and in-person meetings be democratized?” or “How can key performance indicators be measured equitably for remote and in-office workers?” were rarely discussed among organizations pre-pandemic.
As hybrid work is about to become a norm, leaders must revisit, revise, or even create new company policies to address the challenges of adopting a new work model. Among these is proximity bias.
While most employees want to continue working from home, some fear that it can create a chasm between on-site and remote employees. Industry observers have pointed this out as one of the pitfalls of the hybrid or remote work model.
Some employees worry that those who report to the office more often will have a more significant influence on decisions and an upper edge on career advancement opportunities over those who prefer to work offsite. Workers expect clear and well-thought-out policies that explain what they should and should not do and, more importantly, ensure a fair, inclusive, and equitable hybrid working environment.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this matter. But regardless of the industry, leaders must ensure that expectations are communicated clearly across the board. I am pointing this out because “The Great Executive-Employee Disconnect” apparently has a more far-reaching scope than many C-suites recognize.
In the Future Forum report, it was found that 66% of executives believe they’re being “very transparent” about their post-pandemic remote working policies. However, only 42% or less than half of employees agree.
#4: The Strongest Reactions Would Be Coming From Women and Working Parents Without Access to Childcare
With inflation causing childcare costs to swell by 41%, a full-time return-to-office mandate will likely receive more backlash from women and working parents in general. The same Future Forum report mentioned above found that 85% of women employed full time and working remotely want flexible or hybrid work. Additionally, the number of working fathers who would consider switching jobs is 16% higher than men without kids.
Even before COVID-19 pushed remote working to center stage, many parents were already driven out of the workforce due to a lack of access to affordable and reliable childcare. Working from home has enabled employees with children to find the balance between parenting and pursuing their careers, eliminating the need for costly child care that takes a staggering 20% of their paychecks.
Many women want to embrace remote work more permanently because it has created a more equitable environment. With still a higher percentage of women primarily responsible for childcare at home, many would often forgo career advancement opportunities that require them to relocate — something they would not have to do with a remote job.
#5: Workers Expect Clear Policies on COVID-19 Prevention and Coverage
“How will you keep me safe?” “Will I get paid for time off if I get sick?” “What happens if a co-worker gets sick?” These are among the most common questions human resource teams receive from candidates and employees nowadays.
While full restaurants, sporting arenas, and other recreational centers suggest that the public’s initial fear of COVID has subsided, employees still expect companies to have clear COVID transmission prevention policies. After all, we are still in a pandemic. And for as long as we are, the threat of a new variant causing another infection surge will always be at the back of the minds of employees sharing physical workspaces.
From rolling out clear office safety protocols to providing comprehensive health insurance coverage, employees expect companies to go above and beyond to increase their sense of safety. Aside from the logistical challenges of ensuring in-office safety, C-suite executives will have to find their way around issues that require even more thoughtful responses, such as vaccine policies.
A study conducted by Gallup revealed that 43% of workers would consider accepting a job offer from a company with COVID-19 vaccination policies that align with their beliefs. However, workers appear to have strong and opposing views on vaccine mandates. With 36% of employees strongly favoring and 29% strongly opposing the mandate, executives will have to be ready to face significant crossroads.
#6: Employees Expect an Outstanding Office Experience
The consensus among multinational C-suite executives is that remote working dilutes company culture. Allow me to echo the words of some executives who hold this view:
“It takes a lot of inner strength and sustainability without the energy that you get from being around other people.” — Mary Erdoes, JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“It [remote work] will increasingly be a challenge to maintain the culture and collaboration that these large financial institutions seek to have and should have.” — Jes Staley, Barclays
While I agree that face-to-face interaction is crucial in fostering relationships in the workplace, it is not enough to cultivate a strong culture. Leaders must recognize that culture cannot be built or strengthened by simply having people working together in one place, especially if that place means employees’ respective corner offices.
Companies will have to revamp their existing workspaces to make them more conducive to collaboration and engagement and to nurturing professional relationships. With remote employees achieving greater performance and productivity even while on “workation,” workplaces will have to offer employees something worth trading for the comforts they have embraced over the past two years — a setting for (re)experiencing authentic human connection.
Going Back to the Office Is Not Going Back to Status Quo
Today’s leaders are faced with the unenviable task of navigating a time in history where the only sure thing is uncertainty. Leaders who approach the current realities with calm curiosity are poised to make better strategic decisions, whether transitioning back to the office or adapting to any other disruption.
As the Chief Executive of SuperStaff, an international outsourcing and human capital firm, we support our global clients with workforces that are office based, hybrid, and satellite in nature. I can tell you from firsthand experience that the more we listen to our employees, the more successful we will all be together. Good luck out there!