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Will Employees Quit if They Are Forced Back into the Office?

A man working on his laptop at home with his dog.

​Employers are increasingly considering a move to in-person work, but new research offers a warning to employers about implementing such policies: Employees may quit if they are asked to return to the office—or they may ask for more money.

Nearly 7 in 10 employees (68 percent) said they would rather look for a new job than return to the office, according to a survey from Clarify Capital, a financial consultancy in New York City that surveyed more than 1,000 remote workers. That figure is even higher among Generation Z workers, of which 79 percent said they would look for a new job over returning to the office.

"Our research suggests employers should reconsider forcing employees back into offices if they don't have to," said Nishank Khanna, chief marketing officer of Clarify Capital. "Employers can also attempt to meet in the middle and offer a more flexible work schedule or allow employees to work from home a certain number of days per week or month."

Meanwhile, the survey found that compensation plays a role in return-to-office considerations, as well: More than a quarter of employees (27 percent) said they would try to negotiate a higher salary if they were asked to return to the office. Just 5 percent said they would be OK with returning to the office without salary negotiations.

"Employers will need to be competitive with their salary negotiations, but they will also need to offer other perks and flexibility for their employees," Khanna said. "Flexible working hours and a four-day workweek are two of the top perks employees would angle for in exchange for coming back to work."

The data comes as companies grapple with return-to-office plans, with some large organizations looking to bring at least some employees back onsite. The Walt Disney Company made waves when it told some employees this month they will have to be in offices four days a week—a split from many firms that are continuing to embrace remote work. Starbucks and Apple also told corporate employees they would have to return to offices three days a week.

Announcements from major—and well-respected—firms are significant because they might indicate the beginning of a shift in remote-work policies. Those announcements also may suggest to other employers that a widespread return to the office is underway after years of remote work—and give them motivation to implement similar plans.

"It sends a signal to other companies who have been internally debating the topic that it might be the right thing to do," Greg Barnett, chief people scientist at Energage, an Exton, Penn.-based software firm that focuses on employee engagement, told SHRM Online recently. "It also provides air cover to senior leaders, because they can point to Disney and say, 'It's not just us.'"

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Flexibility Is Still Key

While there are surely pros and cons to telling employees to return to physical offices, industry experts contend, research on employees' preferences—and potential pushback to such return-to-office policies—does signal some concern for organizations.

Clarify Capital's research is not the only data to suggest that telling employees to return to the office after allowing remote work may cause employees to leave—or at the very least look for other opportunities.

Data last year from the Roseland, N.J.-based ADP Research Institute, for instance, indicated that organizations that force employees back to fully onsite could risk losing up to two-thirds of their workforce. A recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey found that about half of workers said they are "definitely" looking for a remote position for their next job. Meanwhile, a November report from LinkedIn found that 50 percent of job applications submitted on the professional social media platform were for work-from-home positions, which make up just 15 percent of job listings.

The reasons employees don't want to work in offices are plenty. The Clarify Capital survey found those factors include commuting to work (cited by 45 percent of employees); getting home later (44 percent); spending more money on lunch (32 percent), work attire (30 percent) or gas (27 percent); not being home with their kids (30 percent) or pets (29 percent); and not wanting to be exposed to illness (17 percent).

At the very least, company and HR leaders might want to ease the transition by offering other benefits that may entice employees, like flexible working hours, a four-day workweek, a casual dress code or a health stipend, Khanna said.

Perhaps the most important thing company leaders should do, said Ian Cook, vice president of people analytics at Visier, a Vancouver-based analytics firm, is to not view return-to-office policies as a one-size-fits-all approach.

"What works for one company might not work for another," he said. "It's fundamental for business leaders to understand their workforce and what their employees need to be engaged and productive. When thinking about return-to-office policies, it's important to keep in mind certain factors, like generational differences, type of role, and other demographic factors that affect the needs and work style preferences of employees."

Ultimately, things have changed since the pandemic, and organizations would be wise to remain flexible and not rigid in their plans.

"Executives who reach into their old playbook to re-establish the control they enjoyed pre-pandemic risk two things that will harm their future returns," Cook said. "The first is the loss of differentiating talent that wants to live and work in a digital economy, not an office cubicle. There are still many work opportunities available. The second is the gains in output and performance that occur when the right work is done in the right place."


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