Learning from the Pandemic's Office Exodus
Executives everywhere are facing pushback on office re-openings
The class struggle takes different forms in different eras. In the Middle Ages, peasants revolted over their feudal dues (essentially their obligation to till their master’s soil for no pay). In the 18th century, weavers smashed mechanical looms. In the 19th and 20th centuries, workers struck over wages and conditions. Today, as the pandemic wanes, another flashpoint is emerging: whether knowledge workers should be herded back into the office or allowed to continue with their newfound freedoms.
Across the world bosses are issuing stentorian memos telling their charges that they are expected back at their desks — and workers are blanching at the thought of resuming the daily commute and working out their resistance strategies. Should they ignore the memos? Or drag their feet as much as possible — can’t March be pushed back to April and April to May? Or retire early? Or invent a new disability — fear of being loaded into cattle cars and forced to breathe other people’s disease-bearing breath?
This us-versus-them picture is perhaps a bit broad-brush. Some companies have embraced the work-from-anywhere future. “Why should I, as an employer, care as long as you can get the work done and you’re highly productive,” International Business Machines Corp.’s CEO, Arvind Krishna, asked. And some workers, particularly younger ones, prefer working in the office, either because they are short of space at home or because they want to draw a bright line between home and work. But it nevertheless tells us something important. The recruiting firm Korn Ferry points to data that suggest “the gap between C-suite and employee visions of the workplace continues to grow": For example, 53 percent of U.S. companies consider themselves either “fully office” of “mostly office” workplaces while 78 percent of knowledge workers want “location flexibility” and 72 percent are unhappy about their company’s current level of flexibility.
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