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Why employees and employers remain tense in the return to office

Here are the honest and ignored truths about why employees are resisting the demands to return to office and tensions are rising.

A woman seated at a desk inside of an office writing in a notebook with a laptop open beside her in the return to office.

Companies are pushing for a return to the office (RTO), but let’s be real, we can’t just wave a magic wand and expect that misunderstandings between employers and employees will simply disappear.

I’m offering these trends as a roadmap toward understanding, because I’m simply fatigued by seeing endless analysis that is geared toward the C-suite rather than everyone beneath them – I’d like to offer actual, robust insights about the current state of RTO. These are the points everyone is missing.

Employers are sweating RTO

In a recent report by NBC News, we got a glimpse of the heavy-handed tactics being used by big employers to get their employees back into the office. But surprise, surprise – the employees aren’t thrilled about it.

In fact, there have been instances of employees staging walkouts, and a whopping 50% of workers in major cities are giving the office a big thumbs-down. So, while we may have thought we were done with the nightmare of the pandemic, the battle over where and when to work is still raging.

I spend a lot of my time talking with business leaders about trends, especially in employment, and right now the common thread in conversation is the pressing challenge of bringing employees back into the office.

The business world has long held on to this romantic notion that returning to the workplace would be the official rally cry that the global pandemic has ended and life can go back to The Before Times. Instead, it’s turning out a lot more like this historic moment:

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Instead, employers haven’t won, nor have employees, and there’s nothing but growing tension between the two parties regarding where humans are to sit during work hours.

Companies have tried enticing employees back into offices with everything from gentle suggestions to financial incentives. Now, they’re considering punishment in light of how many folks would rather be laid off than work in an office. Oof.

But here’s the twist: Employers are slowly beginning to realize that this tension is far more complex than a disagreement about where someone’s butt is parked all day.

It’s much deeper and most people are missing the point (especially business reporters). Below are the trends that are being overlooked in the return to office debate, that when combined paint a broader picture of why I believe the tensions will only get worse before we ever come to any form of a mutual understanding.

Trend one: Generational differences

We’re finding a fairly universal agreement between Millennials and Gen Z that a return to office is unnecessary, while Gen X and Boomers feel that it is critical.

Of course, that is simplifying matters, and many people don’t fit into their generation’s current stereotype, but watch TikTok or Instagram Reels for five minutes, and you’ll see someone on one generational side making fun of the other.

The younger generations mock the older generations for wasting everyone’s time at work with meetings that should be emails, too much irrelevant personal chit chat that kills workflows, and answering their loudly-ringing cell on speakerphone in the open office.

The older generations mock the younger generations for an inherent laziness, a lack of teamwork, a gross unwillingness to get any real work done unless they get ping pong and kombucha breaks and a lack of appreciation for opportunities found by crossing paths randomly in the hallway.

The assumptions both are making about each other in the midst of a culture shift will continue to complicate the effort companies are making to call people back into the office.

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Further, the pandemic made clear that there are serious generational differences when it comes to management. Conventional managers traditionally value minutes sat in chairs as a top metric and their ability to physically monitor behaviors as a top priority. Newer managers focus on productivity metrics, placing high priority on professional development opportunities.

I believe this generational divide will be the most destructive obstacle to all return to office efforts.

Trend two: Commutes and costs

It’s exhausting seeing all of this analysis of why RTO is difficult without any mention of commutes. We operate giant, extremely active Facebook Groups for tech and marcom job seekers and employers – every time we poll anyone in any generation about whether or not they’ll return to an office, commuting is universally the top reason.

Besides the pandemic sending folks scattering around the country like seagulls when you throw a giant bag of french fries in the air, many people are simply unwilling to spend daily time in the car anymore after experiencing life without it. Especially in bigger cities.

People are getting auto insurance discounts for working remotely, not having to pay for gas, not having the expense of time in a car, or the expense of time away from their cats (or dogs or kids or whatever they care about). They haven’t had to buy a new suit or pair of pants in a long time, or get their hair cut regularly, and with a recession and rising costs, many intend to continue that trend especially when their paychecks can’t keep up with inflation.

Further, childcare expenses are skyrocketing, and for many people, it costs more than their entire monthly paycheck. Childcare has become complex, and although grade school aged children have long been back in the classroom, after school care costs are also rising (if they’re even available in some areas). Remote work allows parents to better manage childcare, and some will absolutely not RTO under current conditions.

Trend three: Consumers are pissed

Have you noticed that we’ve entered an era of disrespect? Once upon a time, people kept it to themselves, minus the rare jerk. Then, social media gave every human a voice, and they used it – often to be rude to companies, employees, strangers, you name it. Now, it has spilled into daily life with people being generally rude to strangers, especially in professional settings.

Harvard Business Review found that 78% of frontline workers witness incivility at least once a month which over time has been found to be a threat to psychological safety, despite major investments brands make in risk management for their teams and workplaces.

And here’s the kicker: The research shows that exclusively on-site employees are the most vulnerable. They’re 66% more likely to feel like their mistakes are held against them, 56% more likely to believe that people are rejected for being different, and 36% more likely to struggle when seeking help from their teammates.

That’s a pretty compelling argument remote workers have when advocating for their remaining remote, and one that corporations don’t have a real way to throw money at (as opposed to other corporate efforts when building culture) or answer to.

Trend four: Harassment

Study after study has found that sexual harassment nearly disappeared when everyone transitioned to remote work in response to the pandemic. When people aren’t in person, it is difficult for bad actors to say things in quiet settings that they would never put in print (aka in an email for all to see).

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Sure, idiots still idiot, and emails and Slack messages still cross the lines, but ask any HR department what happened when folks went home, and they’ll tell you that they didn’t have to really have to deal with sexual harassment complaints (and the paperwork that comes with it) during that time.

But it’s not just sexual harassment, it’s general harassment as well. Not necessarily the kind that you go to HR for, but the kind where someone has a problem with what you’re wearing or how makeup is applied, or how someone is no longer verbal with you because of your political bumper stickers. Although not impossible, frat culture is more difficult to spread online where everything is documentable.

Trend five: Office design

This one may seem silly, but we repeatedly hear that people were already hating going into offices when our nation transitioned to the open office concept.

The idea was accessibility to all teams, and in more progressive teams, assigned seating died and people were meant to interact with different coworkers every day to improve collaboration and better implement the culture each company was so heavily invested in promoting.

But not only did those wall-free desks in open air settings immediately become a nightmare when a global pandemic hit, many people have now felt the freedom of either having walls or lacking the visual stimulus of people constantly moving – and they’re not going back.

Some believe that without Janice from accounting walking by every 45 minutes on her “break” to tell whoever is nearby that there is office gossip, or Jim from sales stopping by without invitation to regale of his college football days, productivity no longer suffers.

Trend six: Mental health and disabilities

If we learned nothing else during COVID, it’s that we quite like our partners we live with and now get to see. We enjoy lunch time walks with the dog.

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Many of us have skipped mid-life crises and moved right into grandparent-like activities like gardening. For some people, being away from humans has truly impacted their mental health negatively, but that is improving as restaurants and retail reopened in full.

For a huge portion of the population, being away from humans has been quite wonderful. They’ve still connected with neighbors and family in person, but not random people whose only commonality is who signs their paychecks.

Aside from different impacts a pandemic has had on our mental health and what traumas we’ve all undergone together, remote work has opened opportunities for an invisible population you’d otherwise never know about – people with hidden disabilities.

Plenty of health challenges and mental health challenges are invisible and can be extremely difficult in a physical office, yet people have simply suffered in silence with them for generations.

For example, people with fibromyalgia and endometriosis can better manage their extreme pain levels when working from home. Folks with ADHD and autism can manage their time and focus better when in full control of their environment.

Forcing people back into the office forces large populations back into a form of work that makes them vulnerable again, when they’re perfectly productive where they are right now.

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It also forces some to feel compelled to disclose health challenges to their employer that could put them in a situation to be discriminated against as opposed to where they are right now, working from home productively.

Trend seven: Employer vanity

Yes, companies have paid big bucks for office space, but employees feel punished by what they see as massive vanity properties as the reason they must commute for hours, overcome physical or mental pain, and endure endless distractions that kill their focus.

There is clearly a trend toward consolidating commercial office leases, and while there is no reason for every company to simply go 100% remote for 100% of the time, it must be understood by the C-suite that some of the tension from the workforce comes from this point of view. Many simply see it as an unnecessary expense, even if they’re wrong.

Trend eight: Sustainability

It is no longer a rare long-haired tree-huggin’ hippie that has opinions on the environment. Today, it is most Americans, whether they’re a recent college grad or a retiring industry leader.

It goes without saying that remote work reduced carbon emissions and environmental footprints. And during the pandemic, high rise offices kept their lights on and air conditioners or heaters blasting despite major cities asking residents to keep their lights off and air conditioners high amidst rolling blackouts. Residential areas are on different grids than corporate high rises in many cities, so people grew weary of their forced sacrifices when empty buildings were fully lit and cooled.

Employees who deeply prioritize sustainability and eco-consciousness will remain resistant, and honestly, they may remain resentful for this dichotomy of treatment and behavior for years to come.

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This list is ever growing

These are only eight observations I’ve made as I talk to business leaders and the workforce at large. The list could easily grow as employers get aggressive with their RTO plans.

There is no clear path forward, as incentives haven’t attracted people back into office chairs, nor have offers for hybrid conditions, nor have threats of laying people off that don’t want to come back into the building.

Typically, larger tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple, lead the corporate world with their investments in culture, so while SMBs look to the Big Boys for what to do next regarding RTO, those Big Boys are hoarding cash and laying off entire teams as sales targets are missed and stock prices suffer.

It’s going to get messy, and I predict the tensions will remain for several years as the trends listed above will be ignored to decision makers’ peril.

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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