Workplace ShowdownPosted 11/22/2022
The continuing disconnect between employers and employees
Our team at Pompeo Group spends our work lives talking with lighting and electrical executives, leaders, hiring managers, HR professionals and candidates, but never in my career have I seen such a disparity of opinion between companies and candidates.
To say that we’re currently at an “impasse” might be too strong, but here is what we are seeing: many employers feel that it’s very clear that a team is more productive working together in the office—more chance to nurture a company culture, an increased synergy achieved by employees brainstorming and working together, face-to-face, each day. And for the past year plus, a striking number of leaders have felt that now that the pandemic seems to be largely in our collective rear-view mirror, their employees understand this viewpoint and know that it’s now time to return to the office—ideally full-time, but certainly at least in a hybrid capacity that puts them back in the office for the majority of a week.
Full disclosure here: At Pompeo Group, we have a beautiful office with spacious workstations and a layout that seemed (but admittedly was not) prescient in its design, with social distancing built in for much of our space. Yet except for weekly trips to the office by some of our team to pick up mail or for other reasons, our beautiful office remains, for the most part, empty. As the president of our firm, it’s certainly not my first choice—I would love to have our team in there most days—but in order to be flexible and attentive to our employees’ needs, we currently work remotely the vast majority of the time. (And, lest I ever forget that we’re in a multi-year lease, my wife will remind me from time to time of my decision of four years ago.)
The disparity of opinion regarding remote work is striking
While company managers and owners are sure that their employees agree with them—that they are more productive in the office and staying home to work was simply a temporary solution whose time has now come and gone—the vast majority of professionals that our team speaks with believe quite the opposite. The majority feel that working remotely gives them a balance of work and life they didn’t have previously, and they feel that they have been just as (if not more) productive while working from home. What’s more, they’re sure that their managers and executives see that things are not only working very well, but maybe even better than they were three years ago. The disparity of opinion is striking.
We have all seen the cajoling and coaxing from many companies to their workforces. Remember the headlines not too long ago—think Bloomberg in mid-August, reading, “Apple Sets Return-to-Office Deadline of September 5 After COVID Delays.” My first thought when reading those headlines was, “Well this will be interesting.”
It felt like a showdown was imminent—“high noon” in the workplace. And while our team wasn’t talking to Apple employees (other than perhaps when shopping for a new pair of AirPods), we were speaking to a true cross section of lighting professionals throughout the country, and I have no reason to believe that the general consensus would be any different than that of Apple employees.
Less than a week after the Bloomberg story, FOX Business ran an update: “Apple workers push back against return to office plan.” Based on what we were hearing from our candidates, the pushback should not have been a surprise. I’m sure that many similar ultimatums in our industry resulted in a similar response from employees. And it’s worth noting that Apple’s “ultimatum” wasn’t even a full-time return to the office—it was simply a three-day-per-week edict.
The rhetoric in the return-to-the-office edicts (and responses) got more heated. Fortune Magazine’s headline was “Apple employees claim they’re doing ‘exceptional work’ remotely as Tim Cook orders them back. They’re probably wrong.” A Wall Street Journal headline shortly thereafter: “Back to Work Or Else” with the subtitles, “We really mean it this time,” and “Don’t force our hand.” The piece reflected the growing frustration of many employers and executives. It felt (and often still feels) like there are lines being drawn in the sand. But the lines keep being redrawn. And redrawn again. And yet again.
Another great WSJ piece, “The Boss Is in the Office While Employees Hit The Beach,” talked about how CEOs and C-level executives are often working in their offices to set the example, but in large part their gesture is not being mirrored throughout their organizations. So, what we have is an ongoing standoff.
One Designer’s Take on Remote Work
Lisa J. Reed, principal at Reed Burkett Lighting Design: “First, we are asking the wrong questions. We are asking what people want and we are asking about their productivity. We need to be asking what is best for their careers and how to ensure and maintain their creativity. I have no doubt that my team is more productive if eliminate their commute and the distraction of being around other people in the office. But what are they not learning? What advancement are they forfeiting? As an office, we want to hit that ‘sweet spot’ of time spent together in person and flexibility to work from anywhere. I’m grateful for the technology that makes it all possible. Thinking beyond my own office, I often wonder how our collective creativity has been reduced over the past two-plus years. Interacting with other people and other ideas changes the way we think, alters our path and sets us on a new trajectory. We will never know what wasn’t created today, all because of the isolation we faced yesterday.”
I spoke with Lisa Earle McLeod, CEO, coach and author of Leading with Noble Purpose, who commented: “Asking ‘Should we work at home or at the office?’ is the wrong question. The three questions leaders should be asking their teams are: What kind of work is crucial for the team’s success? What kind of work is crucial for your success? Where is the best place for you to do that?” McLeod adds, “Too often leaders are basing the home vs. office decision on where they—the leader—feels most comfortable. Instead, ask employees where they do their best work.”
I also had a conversation with Anthony Klotz, the associate professor of organizational behavior with the UCL School of Management in London (formerly at Texas A&M) who coined the term “The Great Resignation.” Dr. Klotz quoted Stanford economist and job market analyst Nicholas Bloom, who studies remote work. Professor Klotz shared that “…one of the most interesting data points [from Dr. Bloom] is that remote work is a benefit, just like other benefits, and Dr. Bloom found that people equate remote work with a 5% raise, so essentially what’s going on right now with bosses saying, ‘Come back to the office,’ feels—to a great number of employees—like a 5% pay decrease.”
This impasse will continue, at least for the foreseeable future. Will this change over time? In a scenario where there would be a crisis resulting in a high level of unemployment, then there might be talk of a return to the office that could actually occur on a large scale. Barring that, and in the meantime, executives and managers are saying, “Come on in, the water’s fine!” and employees are largely replying, “Thanks, I’m good.” And therein lies the challenge for companies and their employees—to find an equitable middle ground that works for all parties.