One of the advantages of having a job like mine that involves scanning a whole lot of news and commentary every morning is that patterns in all that media coverage tend to jump at you.
And this week there’s one trend that’s practically screaming at me from the headlines — story after story suggests bosses are trying to nudge, cajole, and straight up gaslight their employees back to the office. Employees are having none of it.
A pro-office charm offensive
These pieces take different angles. There’s this dispassionate and thorough article from The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan entitled “What Bosses Really Think of Remote Workers,” laying out the research on managers’ attitudes towards remote vs. in-person work.
One quote from UC Davis Davis researcher Kimberly Davis nicely sums up the findings: “There was this belief that if you really wanted to move up in the company, you had to be in the office, and be seen in the office, which often meant coming in early and staying late, because otherwise you weren’t noticed.” Data showing remote workers get paid less and promoted more slowly backs up this conclusion.
Many bosses clearly still need convincing that remote workers are as valuable as colleagues who are willing (and able) to put in a ton of face time. Real estate and other assorted old-school executives are more than happy to support them. But when WeWork’s CEO commented recently that the least engaged employees want to work remotely, he was roundly mocked for peddling self-interest as genuine insight.
Workers respond (profanely)
What do workers think of this cheerleading for the return of in-office work? For the blunt response I suggest this newsletter from journalist Luke O’Neil titled, “Commuting is psychological torture.” O’Neil talks to dozens of workers who left their commutes behind during the pandemic and in reply gets a lot of profanity-filled rants about how going into the office every day is an unmitigated hellscape.
“People worried about recouping their corporate real estate expenses are gonna use every lie and find every ‘expert’ possible to tell us why we don’t actually enjoy the new model, and we should be mindful of that and learn from McDonalds and Chipotle workers about simply saying no,” is one of the more G-rated responses O’Neil receives.
Or, if you’re looking for a more measured look at how employees are feeling, then try this post on The Conversation from a trio of University of Massachusetts Lowell academics who recently surveyed 3,000 workers about their feelings on the potential end of remote work. In a nutshell they found the same thing O’Neil did. Employees by and large are having none of bosses’ attempts to herd them back into their cubicles.
“Many of these workers were moving on the assumption – or promise – that they’d be able to keep working remotely at least some of the time after the pandemic ended. Or they seemed willing to quit if their employer didn’t oblige,” the academics report. Further analysis of comments to Reddit boards revealed that employees are angry and confused about remote work policies, and generally fed up with “corporate culture BS.”
One sample post: “[The company] had everyone come into the office for an outdoor luncheon a week ago…Idiots.”
Which just about sums up workers’ level of patience for managers who try to gaslight them into believing they really do want to get back on the corporate hamster wheel. So beware, bosses. Before you start extolling the joys of “being back together again” or thinking you’re clever scheduling that in-office happy hour, know your workers are on to you.
If you want to keep them around and happy, skip the autocratic demands and ham-fisted manipulation and instead opt for a thoughtful and empathetic conversation with your team about the right balance of remote and in-person work for your business going forward.