Workers return to the office, but where's the boss?
As more workers head back to the office, they’re finding that their boss isn’t in.
Non-executive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to be working from the office five days a week, according to a recent report by Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack with founding partners Boston Consulting Group, MillerKnoll and Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) to help companies navigate the digital-first workplace.
The findings come as many corporate executives urge employees to come back to the office, while many workers seek greater flexibility.
"If these numbers are accurate, I find this to be a disappointing trend," Lindsey Pollak, workplace expert and author of "Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through the Changing World of Work" told Yahoo Money. "Many leaders say they want employees in the office to build company culture, and executives need to remember they are a critical part of that culture."
The report is based on a survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K. Knowledge workers were defined as employed full-time (30 or more hours per week) and either having one of the roles listed below or saying they “work with data, analyze information, or think creatively, “executive or senior management, manager, senior staff or a skilled officer worker such as an analyst or graphic designer.
While the survey didn't delve into why executives aren't returning to the office at the same rate as regular employees, several workplace experts offered their theories.
"Executives are more likely to have the ability to work remotely over employees because they are more senior and their job is less likely to require in-person interactions," Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, told Yahoo Money.
Pollack had a less generous explanation.
"The most likely answer is that they feel they can play by a different set of rules than their employees," Pollak said. "That feels like a recipe for disgruntled employees, which is one of the reasons we are in the midst of a 'great resignation.'"
In fact, back-to-the-office policies are taking a toll on workers, according to the survey. More than a third (34%) of workers back in the office full-time said work-related stress and anxiety hit the worst level since 2020, according to the survey.
“The data shows that inflexible ‘return to office’ policies are to blame, contributing to worse work-life balance and dramatic growth in work-related stress and anxiety for these employees,” Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum, told Yahoo Money. “People have spent the last two years proving they can be just as productive working outside the office.”
More than 9 out of 10 knowledge workers (94%) said they want schedule flexibility (compared with 79% who want location flexibility) — yet nearly two-thirds (65%) say that they personally have little to no ability to adjust their work hours, outside of the occasional doctor’s appointment, the report found.
Moreover, those who are disgruntled with their level of flexibility — both in where and when they work—are now three times as likely to look for a new job in the coming year.
“Flexibility isn’t just where employees work, it’s also when,” Elliott said. “Our research shows that schedule flexibility is critical to engaging and retaining talent … In the era of the Great Resignation, this could have dire implications for employers,” he said.
Given that employers are still grappling with workers hitting the exits at a brisk pace, this is worth considering. In March, 4.5 million people quit their jobs, up from 4.35 million people, or 2.9% of workers, in February, according to the Labor Department’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover report.
Executives are eager to ‘get back to normal’
It’s not that these workers never want to return to the office.
“The vast majority of people want to gather together in-person again for part of the time, but they want it to be for a specific reason — a project kickoff or team-building — and on a rhythm that works for their team,” Elliott said. “Many executives are eager to get ‘back to normal,’ but in their rush back to the office, they’re overlooking the significant benefits that have come with flexibility and risking serious attrition.”
This “sense of agency” over one’s life and work crosses all workers, Megan Gerhardt, a professor of management at Miami University's Farmer School of Business in Ohio and author of Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergeneration Workforce, told Yahoo Money.
“Every employee, regardless of age or generation, needs autonomy and agency over how and where they will work,” she said. “They want to be trusted to make those decisions based on their life stage, career stage, and priorities. Those will differ across generations, but the need to be respected enough to choose for themselves will not.”
Flexible work for all is gaining traction
The potentially good news is that these findings come as an increasing number of employers are choosing to offer more flexible work options for their employees.
Last week, Airbnb, for example, announced that employees can work remotely forever. Other companies transitioning to part-time and permanent remote arrangements include Allstate, Facebook, REI, Slack, and Zillow.
The quickening shift to permanent remote work now means that over 20 million professional jobs will not be going back to the office after COVID, according to data scientists from the Ladders who track remote data from North America’s largest 50,000 employers.
“We learned our employees want more choice about where they work, so we gave them more flexibility,” Stephanie Roseman, vice president of people solutions and experience at Allstate Corp, one of the country's largest providers of personal insurance, told Yahoo Money. “Many are choosing to work from home and others are splitting time between home and the office.”
In fact, 75% of Allstate’s employees are fully remote, 24% are hybrid, and only 1% are office-based workers, Roseman said. Mallory Vasquez is one of those remote employees.
“Remote work is wonderful for me, but it’s really the flexibility that is paramount,” Vasquez, 34, a communications senior manager at Allstate who lives outside of Chicago, told Yahoo Money.
“Being a mom of three young kids, I greatly appreciate the ability to step out for a doctor’s appointment or work later if I’m volunteering at preschool in the morning. That’s simply not as feasible – logistically – when going into an office since the kids go to school closer to home.”
And her anxiety level has dropped drastically, even though she’s still working on transitioning from work mode to family mode.
“I have felt less stress about rushing kids out the door or being late for daycare or school pickups,” she said.
While she still “misses the deskside chats that happened naturally in the office or over lunch,” she said “now that the office is re-opened, there’s always the option to go in person if I choose.”
Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon
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