The firms backtracking on flexible work

Photo credit: DepositPhotos
Photo credit: DepositPhotos

In the face of oncoming economic upheaval and mass layoffs are we seeing the end of flexible work? As bosses call their employees back to work. Is it, however, a lasting comeback to in-person work?

In January, Disney employees got a memo from CEO Bob Iger. Like other entertainment conglomerates, the media corporation had a hybrid-working philosophy that permitted staff to work remotely twice a week. But, Iger stated that the company was altering course from flexible work and would demand a four-day return to work starting in March.

Disney is not the only huge corporation that restricts fexible work. Businesses across industries, like Starbucks, Twitter, and the auditing firm KPMG, are expecting more in-person days, if not full-time office working habits. While half of the employers say that giving employees flexible schedules has worked effectively, a third of those who planned to use a virtual or hybrid model changed their thoughts from a year ago, according to a January study of 1,806 US workers conducted by employment firm Monster.

While CEOs argue that in-person collaboration, friendship, and mentorship are essential reasons for returning to the office, surveys show that many employees value flexible work the most. In various situations, the arrangement has reduced worker burnout, improved work-life balance, and even boosted professional performance. This means there needs to be more synergy between what employers and their employees want – yet managers keep bringing their employees back in.

The return to more in-person settings is a significant shift in the changing world of work, especially given that workers had an advantage in bargaining for flexible work during the hiring crisis. Yet, as economic uncertainty looms and firms reduce jobs on a huge scale, the power balance is changing again in favor of employers: many may use the downturn to impose or adjust their working methods. Fears of a recession and layoffs force many impacted workers to return to work – at least for now.

What changes have occurred in the flexible work balance?

A full-time employee working remotely, even part-time, was uncommon only three years ago, reserved for workers in unique special arrangements.

Yet, the outbreak sent many workers home, particularly in knowledge-work industries. Several employees discovered that flexible work helped them avoid daily commutes and nine-to-five office presenteeism, thus, allowing them to create new, more effective working habits and achieve a better work-life balance.

Flexible work quickly became the most requested occupational benefit in this shift. As a result, several companies offered remote work to job seekers and current employees, despite record vacancies and quit rates. According to data from a July 2022 survey of 13,382 global workers conducted by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 40% said workplace flexibility was a top motivator in whether they stayed in a role, trailing only salary (41%), with 26% citing a lack of flexibility as a major reason they quit their previous role.

Furthermore, several companies, such as Airbnb, followed through on their promises immediately away, establishing permanent remote job agreements. Numerous other employers enacted hybrid-working plans that included some remote employment. Unfortunately, even once companies reopened, supervisors could not change these policies; enterprises that pushed employees to return to work faced employee resistance or even resignations. As a result, during a period of tremendous economic expansion, employers had little alternative but to incorporate flexible work into their companies.

Yet, due to changes in the labor market, some long-distance arrangements are no longer sustainable for some organizations. Retention is no longer a key priority because of the tech slump and increased economic insecurity, particularly in light of job cutbacks. As a result, businesses now have more clout when ordering their employees to return to work. “If an employee dislikes a new work arrangement, frequent layoffs make it much less likely that another role awaits them,” Cooper adds.

This is true even as the need for flexibility among workers remains high. According to a December 2022 survey of 10,992 US employees, 30.6% want to work full-time from home. And the ability to be flexible has impacted workers’ lives: some have increased their hours to become non-linear, while others have formed patterns based on their virtual-working habits to achieve a better work-life balance. A few employees have even moved closer to the office.

Realizing that the changes may irritate employees, some have resisted describing them as a “return to the office,” instead branding them as a move toward “flexible, deliberate working,” for example.

Yet, when the labor market becomes less advantageous to workers, this type of subtle corporate messaging becomes less required because it is easier to replace an employee than it was during the peak of the recruiting crisis. Cooper claims that employees are aware of this. Therefore, employees must obey if their employer instructs them to return to work five days a week, regardless of how management labels the directive.

Read Also: CNET has laid off half of its workforce

CEOs that compel staff back to work risk losing their best employees. Nonetheless, the benefits outweigh the risks for management. As a result, some companies are ready to invest more time and resources in returning employees to work more frequently – or in finding new ones who will.