Zoom Wars: Why Return to Office Ultimatums Fail

A New Hope

COVID-induced flexibility saw reported gains in workforce productivity, increased work-life balance, access to a broader talent pool, and a potential for cost savings in a reduced real estate footprint. Most importantly, it solidified employee expectations around flexibility.

  • 38 million Americans are projected to work remotely in 2025, an 85% increase over pre-pandemic levels, according to Deloitte Consulting.
  • 73% of workers surveyed said they wanted to work remotely at least 2 days a week, PwC Remote Workplace Study
  • 83% of executives and 71% employees said remote working has been a success in the same PwC survey
  • 47% of employees reported they are likely to leave their jobs without a hybrid work option, and 41% said they would take a lower salary as a trade-off for more flexibility, according to Envoy Return to the Workplace Report

The Empire Strikes Back

On the other side, several CEOs have recently received backlash for their comments regarding returning to the office post-COVID and their fears about the changing landscape and its effect on workplace culture.

  • Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase said that working remotely doesn’t work for those “who want to hustle” and that he expects September and October to look will look “just like it did before and everyone’s going to be happy with it.”
  • Cathy Merrill, CEO of Washingtonian found herself with a strike on her hands after she penned an op-ed titled, “I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to working in the office.” She argued that remote work made employees less valuable and more expendable.
  • WeWork CEO, Sandeep Mithrani argued that those most comfortable working from home are the “least engaged.”

A Balance in the Force

While, the CEOs have valid fears about the erosion of very real workplace dynamics: idea generation, collaboration, culture, and the nurturing of relationships in a distributed environment, employees are seeing the benefits of reduced commute time and an increase in productivity. CEOs are asking the question of whether they are able to develop remote employees adequately, and employees are wondering whether they are trusted. The model going forward needs to balance the new reality with those concerns. CEOs demanding 100% in the office will suffer a talent drain, and employees demanding 100% remote may find themselves insufficiently engaged and connected. A hybrid model requires intentional planning and refinement.

  1. Start with assessing what work needs to happen in-office and what % of a given job that comprises (e.g., strategic planning, ideation, project kick-offs)
  2. Identify important “lifecycle” events that require higher-touch: onboarding, mentoring, succession planning and development, off-boarding
  3. Develop a rotational schedule by role using this assessment and plan overlapping days for group work and “off days” for individual activities
  4. Establish expectations and policies that support both in-office and remote work (e.g., technology reimbursement allowance)
  5. Shift away from visual contact as a confirmation of performance toward measurable outcomes
  6. Embed regular check-ins between manager and employees at frequent intervals
  7. Establish metrics and feedback channels to allow for iteration and refinement

It’s tempting to fall back into old patterns and assume that if it wasn’t broke, why fix it? But the landscape has changed irrevocably, and we have seen what is possible under an incredible shift in circumstances. And as Millennials and Gen Z make up the majority of the workforce, they are accustomed to technology-based collaboration and communication as the default. The idea of only being able to collaborate in person is quaint, at best.

As Yoda would say, “you must unlearn what you have learned.”

 

 

Barbara Milhizer