Remote or In-Person Work? The Debate Rages

During the past 15 or so months, almost all non-essential workers were required to work remotely.  This was, in a way, a massive experiment to test the notion that workers do not have to be physically at a workplace to get things done or to be productive. Everything from recruiting to public relations to finance to marketing to sales can be done virtually. In fact, the number of jobs that cannot be done remotely are few and include only those that require something that has to be touched, moved, assembled, or operated.

Fortunately, most of the tools needed for remote work were available at the start of the pandemic, and many of them got better over time. Everything from Zoom and Microsoft Teams to instant messaging tools, email, and collaborative software for sharing and editing documents or spreadsheets. The most significant perhaps was Zoom, which became a primary connector for many employees.

Recruiters used Zoom to screen and interview candidates, as did hiring managers.  We discovered that we did not need an in-person interview at all. Remote work changed job requirements and opened work up to more diverse candidates.  The disabled could work more effectively in their own environment, many people with adult or childcare responsibilities could remain employed. Commuting became unnecessary. This allowed people who could not drive or did not own a car to remain employed. Workers could be located anywhere, which expanded the pool of talent and made hiring good people easier.

Many employees have embraced remote work. They can work when they are most productive, maybe in the evening when the kids are in bed or distractions are less. Others to avoid a long commute or to live where life is easier or cheaper.

But there were concerns. Older managers were worried that workers would slack off or not be available during normal working hours. Some worried that a worker might be doing another job at the same time or, worse, running their own business. There was, and still is, a belief that “if I can't see them, they aren’t working.” Although the pandemic has dispelled many of these beliefs, they still linger.

And some employees prefer to get away from home, socialize with their peers, and miss the office environment. This is especially the case for employees who live in crowded conditions or do not have the tools to work remotely.

Recently some employers are asking employees to return to the physical office. They have redesigned office space to allow more distancing and have improved air filtration or set up partitioned meeting spaces.

There are several reasons why employers are doing this.  One is simply old ways of thinking and a desire to return to what things were like pre-pandemic.  But for others, it is a feeling that collaboration, innovation, and teamwork only happen when people are physically together. And for a few, it is because they have invested millions in buildings and real estate and cannot imagine a business without a physical presence. What would they do with those buildings that they have to pay taxes on and maintain?  Cities and governments are concerned because if these buildings are not occupied, they will lose vital tax dollars and small businesses that depend on workers who spend money for food, and such would go out of business, further depleting tax coffers and raising unemployment.

Remote work also challenges corporate culture and raises some interesting and, as of yet, unanswered questions. What happens to the culture when people are spread all over the world?  When very few ever meet each other face-to-face?  And perhaps most fundamental, is corporate culture as important as we think?

Remote work also is reported to increase turnover as people feel less loyalty to an organization and have few if any close friends or colleagues. Some firms are experiencing 150% turnover annually, which places a high burden on recruiting to fill open positions. High levels of turnover also increase the likelihood of management opting to automate more work.

But workers still favor working remotely. According to recent news reports, many workers are quitting rather than going back to the physical office. A Bloomberg survey of 1,000 U.S. employees from this past May reported that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren't flexible about remote work. When the same survey asked the youngest generation of workers, Gen Z, that number rose to 49%.

Salaries have been fairly stagnant for years, and employees are now demanding higher wages, fewer working hours, and more flexibility in hours if they return. Working conditions and wages are the major hurdles facing employers as more workers become comfortable with a gig or remote workstyle.

The dilemma is significant.  Employers want employees to return to the office, and many employees do not want to. And human resource leaders and recruiters are concerned about less diversity if office work returns to pre-pandemic levels. It will be impossible to hire candidates who live too far to commute and do not want to relocate.

While these employees realize the benefits of socializing, face-to-face discussions, and team sessions, they know they are not needed daily. Get-togethers can be infrequent and can be done almost anywhere convenient for most employees.  There is very little reason to commute to the office for this to happen.

Recruiters are in the middle of this, often working with a lack of clear guidance from human resources leaders or management in knowing what type of work to offer candidates.  They are struggling to convince candidates to either come to the office or remain remote.

The solution may be choice. Those who want to work remotely can and vice-versa. Some employers offer employees a choice between full remote work, a hybrid model with some time in the office, and some remote and working entirely in the office.  According to a recent report from Salesforce, most of their employees opt for the hybrid model, which seems to be the most popular.

But whatever emerges as the majority working style, work will never be the same as it was. Remote workers will be a significant part of the workforce, as will gig and part-time workers. We may be in a period where permanent, office-based work is only for a small minority of people who must be physically in an office or choose to do so. And all of this complicates recruiting and adds to its challenges.

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