The workers pushing back on the return to the office
Share on Linkedin
(Credit: Getty Images)
Some companies want staff back in the office for more time than employees had anticipated. Workers like their set-ups, and even doubt bosses' motives – so they're resisting.

Early in June, Apple CEO Tim Cook sent out a company-wide memo telling staff they would be required back in the office by early September. Workers would be expected to be present for three days a week, with two days of remote work.

Some Apple employees weren’t happy – and pushed back with their own letter. Addressed to upper management, their message expressed frustration about the new policy, saying that it had led some employees to quit. Apple’s pre-pandemic policies discouraged remote work, but post-Covid-19, employees are challenging what they called “a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote/location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees”. 

Apple staffers aren’t the only ones contesting plans to return to the office. Workers at Washingtonian magazine, a US-based publication, walked off the job when their chief executive Cathy Merrill wrote an op-ed that appeared to threaten employees’ job security if they refused to return to the office five days a week. Other employers still appear to be talking tough, however; last week, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said he’d be “very disappointed if people haven’t found their way into the office” by early September. “Then we’ll have a different kind of conversation.” 

As employers start to unveil their post-pandemic visions for work, pushback movements from employees keen to retain their work-from-home privileges are in nascent stages. But localised protests may be indicative of more widespread resistance among workers to revert to pre-pandemic patterns. Employees may well feel they've proved they can be productive at home –  and that the reasons companies say they want them back in-office don't stack up.

Establishing future working patterns that appease all sides will be a complex process. But doing so will reap dividends for companies; if they don't, and workers have better options, they might well vote with their feet.

When decisions were being made, everyone was trying to figure this out, and things got said that weren’t thought through – Kimberly Merriman

‘Democratisation of the workplace’

Remote work has been a positive experience for many (though not all) employees. Citing data from January 2021, results from one recent US poll showed that 44% of people currently working from home want to continue working remotely because it suits them; 39% would prefer to return to the office; and 17% want to keep working remotely because of coronavirus. In general, remote workers cite not having to commute as a major perk as well as having more room to balance work, family and leisure.

Many workers will have assumed that, once introduced, work-from-home was here to stay, and some may even have relocated accordingly. That’s partly because of how quickly companies around the world had to transition – and some employers sent signals that suggested the shift could be a long-term option. (In September, for example, Tim Cook said he didn’t believe Apple would “return to the way we were, because we’ve found that there are some things that actually work really well virtually”, though he did also caveat his comments.)

“When decisions were being made, everyone was trying to figure this out, and things got said that weren’t thought through,” notes Kimberly Merriman, professor of management at the Manning School of Business at University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Now, with the return to work more imminent, many companies are talking about a 'hybrid' future combining both remote work and office time. But some companies either want staff back full-time in the office or for larger chunks of time – and more regularly ­– than employees had hoped for or anticipated. 

It’s already clear that not all workers are happy about being summoned back to their desks. Having made the sudden and, in many cases, stressful shift to remote work at the start of the pandemic, workers feel they’ve proved that they could make a success of it – including in roles for which bosses had previously rejected any kind of flexibility. And they are suspicious of the reasons companies are giving for calling them back.

When Apple released a memo about return to work, its workers issued a letter in response, pushing back on the company's back-to-campus plans (Credit: Getty Images)

When Apple released a memo about return to work, its workers issued a letter in response, pushing back on the company's back-to-campus plans (Credit: Getty Images)

Many firms, for example, have cited company values or culture as their reason for insisting on in-office presence. In her Washington Post op-ed, Merrill suggested that remote work was easy at first because staff “could rely on office cultures – established practices, unspoken rules and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person”.

Another common refrain is that remote work stymies collaboration and innovation, because the latter in particular often arises from spontaneous conversations in the office. There’s also concern that the work-from-home model does not work for junior employees, who want to learn from their colleagues.

But, junior workers aside, employees who feel they have been productive and innovative at home are questioning the mantra that engaging with ‘corporate culture’ or water-cooler chats will make them better workers. “This [emphasis on corporate culture] kept coming up in a way that didn’t ring true. It was almost like a euphemism for ‘I want you back, I don’t want you at home. I don’t trust you.’ That’s how workers are interpreting it,” says Merriman. 

Overarchingly, workers who have enjoyed more autonomy than ever before over their working lives are reluctant to trade it back in for the presenteeism and surveillance of the pre-pandemic era. “What we’ve seen is a democratisation of the workforce, in the sense that people could decide how to work and when to work,” says Stefanie Gustafsson, senior lecturer at the University of Bath School of Management.

Merriman also feels that there has been a “power dynamic shift” in the workplace that isn’t going to go away. “In this day and age, everyone wants the kind of workplace where they feel like they matter, and leaders who ask for their opinions,” she says.

Involve employees or risk losing them

The good news is that in a tight labour market, like the US, those who are unhappy with their company’s stance on flexibility have options – and leverage. “To return to growth, business leaders will need to understand what employees really want and create policies and plans that allow for more flexibility and personalisation,” according to a recent PwC white paper.

Companies that do not work to accommodate employees’ desired working patterns do so at their own peril. “As long as this is a workforce where there are options, then these organisations will lose out,” says Gustafsson. “Before the pandemic, going to the office three days a week would be a great thing. But now, people have choices: other organisations in the same space may offer very flexible, totally remote workplaces.”

Now, people have choices: other organisations in the same space may offer very flexible, totally remote workplaces – Stefanie Gustafsson

Research certainly suggests that, for a number of reasons, a higher-than-usual proportion of employees are eyeing the exit at work, in what is being called the Great Resignation. How flexible companies decide to be may well feed into this; one poll indicates that 54% of surveyed employees from around the world would consider quitting their job if they are not given some form of flexibility in terms of where and when they work. Just more than 75% of this same group said they were satisfied with their jobs, indicating that even satisfied employees are willing to quit if their employers don’t embrace a degree of remote work.

Not everyone will be able to call their own shots, however. Workers in the technology sector are in high demand, which provides them with more flexible employment options from a broader array of companies, but workers in other sectors may have less leverage. Those employed in sales, human resources and administration, for example, are far less likely to have worked remotely in the first place, and therefore less likely to be afforded more opportunities to do so in the future.

Whether employees leaving in droves – or publicising their opposition to post-pandemic working practises – will influence company policies remains to be seen. Apple has yet to respond publicly to the letter from its employees. (BBC Worklife reached out to Apple, but they did not provide a comment as of press time.) But public employee pushback may well influence workers in other companies; just as executives look to each other for examples of how they should bring employees back, workers may look to high-profile pushback efforts for inspiration. It’s also clear that companies are continuing to adjust policies; Amazon and Google have both recently introduced more flexibility into their previous return-to-office stances (though there is no evidence this is in response to employee pushback). But in general, unhappy staff don’t reflect well on companies. 

“A few numbers really reach far. Companies should be concerned when any number of employees complain like that [the Apple case]. It can escalate and give an impression, even if it’s a small number of employees, that this is the tone of the organisation,” says Merriman.

Rather than handing down decisions from the top, engaging in transparency and dialogue may well serve employers better as they establish what post-pandemic work will look like. In the last 15 months, many workers have embraced flexibility and autonomy – and will be reluctant to give it up.

“[Pushback is] more a wake-up call than a death sentence for employer relationships,” says Merriman. “I’m not sure why the pandemic made [leaders] forget that you can’t be a top-down, imposing leader when workers have options.”