Editor’s Note: Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management and author of “Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
As restaurants, malls and movie theaters fill back up with people, the workplace has remained nearly empty. This is partly driven by how engrained remote work has become in society. People have invested in creating workspaces in their homes, relocated to smaller towns and even taken their work to vacation resorts. Now, amidst an easing pandemic and slowing economy, companies are increasingly trying to draw employees back into the office. But many just don’t want to go.
For more than a year, workers have held the advantage in a historically competitive labor market. But a looming economic downshift threatens to reverse the balance of power from employee back to employer.
Though seen as a necessity during the pandemic, some business leaders doubt the current level of remote work is sustainable. And they’re right. A fully virtual workplace misses some of the key drivers for performance, productivity and growth, which are top of mind right now for businesses facing the prospect of a potential recession. Understandably, they want workers back in the office because they’re preparing for an ultra-competitive environment, which calls for maximizing efficiency. Fully remote work doesn’t cultivate the level of interpersonal relationships that business leaders see as vital to workplace synergy, collaboration and innovation. It can’t replicate the rich, robust, direct two-way, in-person communication that is critical to complex and creative work.
When companies are responding to market shifts and economic stresses, new ideas, problem solving and brainstorming all become essential. And brainstorming sessions are much easier to conduct in person, where workers can hash out their ideas on collaboration boards in conference rooms or shared workspaces. Remote workers, meanwhile, are more prone to distractions at home that can inhibit their concentration and participation.
It’s not just what happens in formal meetings that adds value. It’s also the organic connections and culture-building that occurs when workers run into each other in the hallways or after a company gathering. It’s these spontaneous opportunities to delve into the details that are missed when one is working remotely.
Employers and employees will need to make some hard decisions in the coming weeks. Certainly, employers should be empathetic to the needs of their workers and mindful of safety and health considerations as they craft and implement new workplace policies. But the reality is some employees will still want to work 100% remotely, which may not be a fit for what a particular organization is trying to do. Just as employees are seeking opportunities to fit their individual work preferences, employers must be willing to seek employees who align with their workplace culture. If this means separating from those who are unwilling to return to the office, so be it. Harboring workers who aren’t aligned with the culture is a recipe for a toxic and dysfunctional workplace and does a disservice to all parties. More importantly, being clear about organizational culture and having the right people in place sets the tone for a productive employee/employer relationship and will be key to surviving the economic downturn.
Undoubtedly, there will be workers who don’t agree with a particular direction. But it is incumbent on organizational leaders to build a coalition of workers who fit their mission if they are to continue to function and grow. Leaders owe it to all stakeholders, including workers, to make the best policy decisions. Policy can’t just make sense for workers. It must also make business sense in order to preserve opportunities for workers to work; it must make financial sense in order to protect opportunities for workers to earn a living.
The flexibility we embraced during the pandemic should go both ways. Workers will need to bend a bit, especially when the viability of the workplace is in jeopardy. The hybrid workforce is not going away, but the situation where employees refuse to come to the workplace at all is not likely to hold.