Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board

The risk of ‘faux flexibility’ in the post-COVID workplace

November 16, 2020, 6:30 PM UTC

Even before the pandemic, the way Americans worked wasn’t working.

“The corporate work environment is not sustainable for human beings and doesn’t comport with life,” says Atif Rafiq, president of commercial and growth for MGM Resorts.

Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler, whose company has been surveying workers for the past 15 years, says people spend about half their time at the office on “individual-focused activities”—something their shrinking workspaces do not foster.

“There’s been a real decline in how people perceive the effectiveness of the workplace to support the work they do every day,” says Hoskins. But as COVID-19 radically alters the way we work and live, this is a “reboot moment to think about what the workplace should be,” she says.

Rafiq and Hoskins spoke as part of a Fortune roundtable last week on how the pandemic is creating the biggest workforce experiment in modern history as employees have shifted from corporate offices to working from home.

“Not since the industrial revolution have managers and leaders had to think about work design,” says Nickle LaMoreaux, IBM chief human resources officer.

LaMoreaux says IBM, with its 350,000 employees spanning more than 150 countries, has tried to emphasize that there is no “one size fits all” model for returning to the office—even as some employees have wanted worldwide timelines. She says that the company believes there will be a hybrid model of working from home and the office going forward, but it expects employees will live within commuting distance to an IBM hub or office.

Jana Rich, founder and CEO of Rich Talent Group, an executive search firm for high-growth companies, says most of her clients are not saying employees can be remote forever. Companies want new hires to relocate as soon as it’s safe, she says, and that’s especially the case for senior leaders. But some candidates are hopeful employers will eventually change their minds. “I think it’s risky, to be honest,” Rich says. “We’re counseling really carefully not to make those assumptions.”

Rich also notes that 88% of the people she’s recruiting into these top roles are women and people of color. She’s concerned what impact it will have on marginalized and underrepresented groups if they are less able to be physically in the office when it’s safe to do so.

Rich’s concern was echoed by the rest of the group. “We need to create a lot more pathways for people to be rewarded and promoted,” Rafiq says. Unless that happens and there are real proof points, “the social behaviors will not really change.” He says taking advantage of flexibility shouldn’t influence your status at the company: “It should really be your potential and your performance.”

LaMoreaux says IBM has had to talk about centering its performance management and rewards and recognition systems on “outcomes, not activities.”

“We’ve been saying that a lot prior to the pandemic,” she says. “But this has been kind of the crisis that has made us bring that to the forefront.”

Brian Elliott, the former head of platform at Slack and VP of Future Forum, a new Slack-led consortium that aims to rethink the modern workplace, says he’s consistently heard concerns over what happens if a company allows flexibility but the C-suite shows up at the office every day. He says this “faux flexibility” can lead employees to feel like second-class citizens: “One of the key determinants of success is going to be how executives themselves behave.”

But it seems that millennials and members of Gen Z are also missing the office. Kirthiga Reddy, a partner with SoftBank Investment Advisers, says this group is feeling less connected and “does not want to be the Zoom” generation. Says Hoskins, “They’re not going to get the mentoring they’re looking for.”

More must-read stories from Fortune: