- The battle over remote work is heating up this winter as more and more business leaders are demanding that their employees come to the office much or all of the time.
- Traditionalist executives are causing drama and stress with demands to return to the office, but rising infections of COVID, flu and RSV will keep remote winning this winter.
- It is important to empathize with and understand where such leaders are coming from, but following their sometimes personal reasonings will hurt the bottom lines for their companies.
The monumental battle over remote work is heating up this winter as more traditionalist business leaders are demanding that their employees come to the office much or all of the time.
Google maps workers, asked to come back to the office full-time recently, fought back with a petition and threats of a strike, and won a reprieve of 90 days. Elon Musk demanded that all Tesla staff come to the office full-time despite insufficient spaces at Tesla offices, resulting in Tesla staff getting recruited by other companies. Apple employees are pushing back publicly against the leadership’s demand for three days in the office, with a recent letter saying “stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.” GM rolled back its return to office requirement after a backlash from employees.
The same struggles are happening at smaller US companies, as well as across the globe. Yet what these traditionalist executives are failing to realize is that the drama, stress, and tensions caused by their demands won’t matter. Mostly or fully remote work will win this winter.
New Wave Of Infections Fuels Remote Work
Perhaps you think COVID vaccines might protect us from this problem? Think again.
A Kaiser Permanente study on the original Omicron strain, BA.1, found that after two doses of Pfizer, vaccine effectiveness against hospital admission was at 41% after 9 months. A booster shot increased effectiveness against hospitalization to 85% for a couple of months, but it wore off quickly to 55% after three or more months.
Note that this is vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization, not infection: the vaccine is much weaker against infection. And it’s for the original Omicron strain BA.1, not BA.5, which is much more capable of immune escape, more transmissible, and causes more severe disease.
What about the new bivalent booster, which is more effective against BA.5? As of November 24, only 14% of those older than 18 received the new booster. And according to a just-released Morning Consult survey, 53% of U.S. adults say they will “definitely” or “probably” get a COVID-19 booster in the next year, down from 58% who said the same in a September survey.
There is a similar drop in respondents’ willingness to get an annual booster: 51% said they would “definitely” or “probably” get annual shots in the latest survey, down from 56%.
Moreover, a new study shows that after an initial COVID infection, each subsequent infection with COVID results in higher risks of hospitalization and death.
In other words, after an initial infection, you end up with long-term or permanent damage that is exacerbated by subsequent infections. Thus, it’s important to minimize the number of times we get infected with COVID.
Unfortunately, COVID isn’t the only health threat running rampant. The flu and RSV have also had extraordinarily high case rates so far this season.
The implication is clear: this winter will see a major surge of infections, which has already started.
Opposition to Mostly or Fully Remote Work by Traditionalist Leaders Will Backfire
During both the Delta surge and the Omicron surge, traditionalist companies that tried to force their employees back to the office, and experienced extensive drama and stress over this coercive approach, had to roll back their plans, with all that effort wasted.
Besides, the yo-yoing of going back and forth from home to the office and back home seriously undermined productivity, harmed engagement and morale, and impaired retention and recruitment. We’ll see the exact same yo-yoing at Tesla, Apple, Google, and other companies led by traditionalist executives in the next several months.
So why do they pursue this doomed effort to push their staff into the office? After all, these executives have the same information I do, and the implication is clear.
The key lies in what makes these executives feel successful and feeds their identity as leaders.
In fact, one leader wrote an op-ed piece about this topic, saying “There’s a deeply personal reason why I want to go back to the office. It’s selfish, but I don’t care. I feel like I lost a piece of my identity in the pandemic… I’m worried that I won’t truly find myself again if I have to work from home for the rest of my life.”
By honestly saying the quiet part out loud, this op-ed reveals how other leaders use false claims about remote work undermining productivity, innovation, and social capital to try to cover up their true concerns.
This personal, selfish orientation speaks to a mental blindspot called the egocentric bias, an orientation toward prioritizing one’s own perspective and worldview over others.
It is important to empathize with and understand where such leaders are coming from, but following their personal and selfish predisposition will hurt the bottom lines for their companies.
The Future of Work: A Hybrid-First, Team-Led Model
What works much better is a hybrid-first, team-led model: a flexible approach where individual team leads consult with their team members to decide what works best for them.
That goes for large companies, such as my client Applied Materials, a Fortune 200 high-tech manufacturer. It adopted an “Excellence from Anywhere” modality that focuses on deliverables rather than where someone works. That also goes for middle-size organizations, including another client, the Information Sciences Institute, a 400-staff data science and machine learning research center at the University of Southern California. ISI used this approach to gain leadership in hybrid and remote work.
Team members at Applied and ISI come to the office once or twice a week, whether to socialize or to collaborate more intensely, since for most people, intense collaboration works best in-person. Otherwise, team members stay at home, since workers are substantially more productive working remotely. And as cases of illness increase in their area, the teams flexibly adapt their approach to collaborate and socialize fully remotely.
A third client, the Jaeb Center for Health Research, chose to adopt a home-centric model. That’s because surveys showed the large majority of its staff wanted full-time remote work. Moreover, their research-focused activities are more individualized and less team-oriented than those at ISI or Applied. They only come to the office on rare occasions for meetings or training. Such remote-first, home-centric models will work well for organizations where individual employee productivity, rather than team productivity, is more important.
In short, flexible models — while going against the intuitions of many leaders — best fit the desires of most employees, whose biggest non-salary demand is flexibility. They address the risks associated with COVID variants, flu and RSV, as well as other emergencies. And finally, they maximize profits for companies, by boosting retention, recruitment, collaboration, innovation, and productivity.
The only obstacle is the personal, selfish orientation of traditionalist leaders, who need to recognize the danger they are posing to the success of their companies if they pursue their backward-looking coercive efforts to get their staff to return to the office.