Companies are asking more workers to return to the office after Labor Day. But CEOs who want or require their employees to return to the office regularly must earn their willingness to commute.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, much has changed in the way office work is perceived and conducted, according to renowned pollster Frank Luntz. He revealed his latest focus group findings about employee attitudes and offered guidance to CEOs about messaging last week in a CNBC interview.
"Employees expect the CEO to 'deserve' my employment and 'deserve' my effort," he said. "It wasn't this way before the pandemic, but now it is across the board. It applies to [the] working class, middle class [and] upper class and in every state in the country. It's the feeling of people in midlevel management or a new employee trainee."
Through his focus group, Luntz found that employees want better flexibility. That feeling was echoed in a Aug. 31 Gallup survey of workers on their thoughts about remote work.
Using a nationally representative sample of 8,090 remote-capable U.S. employees surveyed in June 2022, Gallup found that approximately 56 percent of full-time employees in the U.S.—more than 70 million workers—say their job can be done by working remotely from home.
At the time of the survey, about half of remote-capable employees were working partly in the office and partly remotely, one-third were working exclusively remotely, and one-fifth were entirely onsite.
Gallup expects that fully remote work arrangements will continue decreasing from 3 in 10 remote-capable employees in June to 2 in 10 for the long term, despite 34 percent of respondents wanting to work from home permanently.
When employees' location preference doesn't match their current work location, said Ben Wigert, Gallup's director of research and strategy for workplace management, employees "have significantly lower employee engagement alongside higher burnout and desire to quit" because they do not feel well-positioned to do their best work or live their best life.
Luntz said workers "want better choices. … They want more control over their lives and workplace setting. They know that they deserve it."
Easing COVID-19 Restrictions to Bring More Workers Back to the Office
This week, Goldman Sachs announced in a company memo that as of Sept. 6, it is relaxing all of its in-office COVID-19-related restrictions, including masking and testing requirements for employees, a sign many said was an indication the company wanted workers back in the office full time. The memo also signaled a nudge for employees to return to the office following Labor Day, directing workers to "speak with your manager to ensure that you understand and adhere to your division's current return to office expectations."
Morgan Stanley also told its New York staff that as of Sept. 5, it's ending COVID-19 testing and control measures such as exposure notification e-mails. The banking firm said anyone who tests positive should still isolate for at least five days, then wear a mask for five more, according to a memo. Staffers who may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive don't need to isolate but should wear a mask for 10 days in the office and get tested on the fifth day after exposure, the firm said.
Both firms grabbed headlines this time last year by intensifying their calls to have workers return after Labor Day, but those plans were stymied by a surge of COVID-19 cases.
The country's largest city has a ways to go to gain in-office workers. Kastle Systems data shows New York City office occupancy at 37.6 percent for the week ending Aug. 17. New York's office occupancy hasn't inched above 43 percent since the onset of the pandemic.
Workers Prefer Hybrid Arrangements
Gallup also reported that more remote-capable employees have hybrid work arrangements, from 42 percent in February to 49 percent in June, and researchers expect 55 percent of remote-capable workers to have hybrid work arrangements by the end of 2022 and beyond.
This shift aligns closely with the preferences of many remote-capable workers, because 60 percent want a long-term hybrid work arrangement.
A mere 6 percent want to work entirely onsite going forward.
Gallup found that 6 in 10 exclusively remote employees and 3 in 10 hybrid employees are "extremely likely" to change companies if not offered remote flexibility.
Let Managers (Not CEOs) Set Hybrid Schedules
Wigert said Gallup finds hybrid employees to be much more engaged when their team and manager, rather than higher-ups, set their hybrid-work policies and schedules, because managers and teammates know their work requirements best.
"When considering why and how often they should come to the office, we find that employees who spend more of their time collaborating tend to benefit from a moderate amount of time onsite working together," for example, two or three days per week, he said.
Wigert said there's not a set number of days that is ideal because effectiveness varies based on work style and the type of collaboration that is needed.
He added that perfecting the art of hybrid work largely comes down to leveraging the advantages it creates, quickly addressing its challenges and being very intentional about how time is spent onsite versus at home. He recommends that managers ask team members what's working, what's not and what's most effective for them.
Gallup recommends prompts such as:
- Describe the work you do that can be done independently.
- Describe the work you do that is better when we work together.
- What happens when we are in person together that doesn't when we work from home?
- Describe the times when our team works best with other teams.
- Describe the times when you feel connected to our team's culture.
- How do we build some predictability in our work schedules so in-person time is maximized?
- Describe the times when we have created exceptional value for our customers.
Articulate Why Return-to-Office Is a Culture Fit
It's important that CEOs communicate clear reasoning for why spending time together in person is important and how their plan benefits their teams and culture, according to Wigert.
He said executives should emphasize that "now is an important time for everyone to reimagine how we work together most effectively and strengthen our work cultures.
"Executives should acknowledge that a lot has changed and we're going to keep learning together and improving in this new hybrid work environment. There will be a lot of changes that won't be perfect the first time, but they will do their best to listen and improve quickly."
Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Virginia.