Who will win the remote work game of chicken?
As the pandemic drags on, one thing has become clear: most employees really, really like working from home.
Dozens of surveys conducted by companies and analytics firms over the past year reveal just how strongly workers feel about the new WFH lifestyle. Nearly half of workers will quit their jobs if they can't have at least a hybrid option, they insist.
On the other hand, those in managerial roles have been slower to embrace the remote work revolution — to put it mildly. More than one-third of small business owners said they'd fire remote workers who don't return post-pandemic. More than two-thirds consider remote workers more replaceable, according to a Society for Human Resources Management survey.
With tensions between the two groups of workers running high, HR Dive spoke with sources who work directly with employers and workers to get some sense of what the future might hold.
Demand remains high
While the tight labor market is projected to moderately slow soon, competitive hiring continues apace and remains one of the big job market stories. Employers currently require greater flexibility and greater speed of onboarding to avoid new hires getting scooped up by the competition, Max Wesman, founder and chief operating officer of employment screening company GoodHire, told HR Dive.
With such intense competition and the lingering pandemic, companies that used to only consider local talent have broadened their reach. "We're getting a lot more inquiries from companies saying, 'Hey, help us adjust our hiring processes and our background screening processes, because we were used to only having to focus on people in Arizona,'" Wesman said.
Assuming companies aren't asking workers to sign contracts that necessitate eventual relocation, the step seems to be a semi-permanent one, suggesting many companies are embracing the reality of ongoing remote work for at least part of their workforce.
While tech companies have been on the vanguard of the permanent remote work movement — Twitter and Spotify were early adopters during the pandemic, while companies like Basecamp had adjusted to remote work even before the pandemic — they aren't the only or even the majority of companies hiring remotely, Wesman said. GoodHire's base of company clients has a "very horizontal distribution," he said, with healthcare making up the plurality, at 15% of users. In addition to tech companies, GoodHire works with a variety of industries, including manufacturers, financial servicers and even retailers.
In other words? The shift is happening across the economy.
Evan Hock, co-founder of product at MakeMyMove, a website that connects remote workers looking to relocate with towns that offer relocation incentive packages, similarly believes the remote-work shift is here to stay. Pre-pandemic, there were only a handful of relocation incentive programs available. When he started the site, Hock said, there were 23; now, there are nearly 50.
Remote workers bring tax dollars and spending to rural areas, often revitalizing communities that were previously economically depressed. When it comes to the trend of incentive packages, "It's not a matter of whether the communities see value in these people," Hock said. "It's more just [a matter of] how they are going to fund the program," he said.
Hock referenced a study from Upwork, which predicted that 36.2 million Americans will be remote in 2025, a doubling of the number that worked remotely before COVID-19.
If most people like working from home, it stands to reason that managers and supervisors are among at least some of those people. What accounts for the resistance surveyors are encountering?
It's "the managers [who] were used to being in an environment where they could walk around and check in on people and see that they're not slacking off," Wesman said. "It's more of the old-school type of managers that are missing having that opportunity."
That "old-school" culture is industry-specific in some ways, Wesman said. Traditionally, financial services valued having people in seats, in front of their computers for a certain number of hours per day. "That's why you saw a lot of the firms in New York, for instance, forcing people back into the offices early on in the pandemic — because that was part of their culture," he added.
Additionally, according to qualitative data from a survey employment law firm Littler, many managers fear the HR dysfunction that could come with allowing employees to work remotely (or in a hybrid manner) on a permanent basis. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they were "moderately or extremely concerned about maintaining company culture, collaboration and employee loyalty in a remote work environment," for example; respondents also worried about potential liability and equity issues related to the allowance for hybrid and remote work.
Wesman addressed the first concern, noting that "companies that embrace collaborative technology and are good at putting together processes and controls for being productive using technology are going to be more effective."
The concern of how varying remote work policies will impact compliance is legitimate and remains to be seen in many ways, though employers can start ensuring they're up to date by learning where their employees are working and familiarizing themselves with those local laws.
'Fully remote' is not the future
While companies can keep employees productive and keep their work culture alive through high-quality, collaborative technology, Wesman noted that he doesn't anticipate "fully remote" will ever be the "pure future."
In particular, younger workers are likely to want those in-person opportunities in spite of their desire to (mostly) work from home, Wesman said. "I remember early in my career, a major part of my career was not actually the in-office camaraderie, but also the after-office [moments], the happy hours and socializing with fellow employees. That's where a lot of my early work and personal relationships started."
Hybrid work is more likely than fully remote, Wesman said; "I think people are going to create some type of in-person interaction at some point. It's going to be needed."
Survey data bears this out as well; while many managers may be pushing against a future of work that happens at least partly outside the office, the majority (55%) of respondents to the aforementioned Littler survey still said they expected to offer workers such a model.
Needless to say, many (if not most) non-office jobs simply don't allow for remote or even hybrid work; retail stores, restaurants, hospitals and many other physical, on-demand service jobs require in-person workers.
Where employers benefit
While the remote work discussion tends to be framed in terms of benefits to employees, employers can also gain from the arrangement, Wesman said.
Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, for example, employers who have a fully remote staff — or who, at least, are not requiring workers to come into the office and are implementing safety measures for those who do — are able to avoid the potential health- and safety-related litigation that could arise from workers getting sick. "It actually is in an employer's best interest to keep more people at home because of the increased liability of potentially the whole workplace getting sick," Wesman said.
In addition, companies that downsize their office space, move to a less expensive area or switch to co-working spaces could save big on their overhead costs over time. Wesman, who used to provide consulting services to companies that were looking to shift to hybrid arrangements, believes this approach to office space will become the norm.
So, while some managers bristle at the idea of a permanently remote workforce, remote work is likely to remain a big piece of the puzzle in the future — even if it isn't the whole thing. "I think it's going to be ultimately more the employers that have to cater to the employees," Wesman said. "Not that it's going to be a free-for-all, where employees can slack off and not get their work done. I think productivity and action and accountability are still going to be important. But at the end of the day, the pendulum is swinging a bit more towards employees, especially right now, with so many job openings."
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