Office workers to bosses: I’ll quit if I have to go full-time back to the office

Offices are opening back up and employers are nudging their workers to return into offices. This is the case for Hannah, a designer who has spent the last year working from a small island in Spain and is now being asked to return to London to spend time in her Mayfair office.

“If they asked me to go back full time right now, I guess would try it, but based on the two days I spent in the office last week, I honestly don’t think I could. I was knackered and I did significantly less work,” she said.

From Beijing to Boston, employers face a big fight on their hands in trying to get staff back into the office Monday to Friday. In what’s turning into the biggest workplace dilemma in well over a generation, employees are increasingly prepared to walk away from a job if management insists on a mandatory return to the workplace when offices fully reopen in the coming weeks and months.

According to a survey of 2,700 office workers across nine countries carried out by the polling firm Ipsos, more than a third of all office workers would quit if they were forced to go back into the office full time. The study interviewed workers from the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, China and Australia.

And a big warning to multinationals—the country-by-country divide is significant.

Workers got their first taste of flexible work arrangements last spring when the world abruptly locked down. Unknown to bosses or their staff then, it would lead to a whole new vision of how to get work done—and the psychology of the world’s workforce is changing with it. For example, respondents in four out of nine countries of the Ipsos survey said that working from home full- or most of the time had a very positive effect on people, with the the United Kingdom and India at the top. On the other end of the spectrum, many in France, Germany, Italy and Russia prefer the pre-pandemic arrangement.

For Hannah, who asked that her last name not be used, working from home had definite upsides: “Now when you’re two minutes late to a meeting everyone notices. When you’re frustrated you can’t mute yourself and groan. You now have to sit in the same seat in a meeting for a two and half hours and be constantly switched on. It’s exhausting.”

What remains certain is hybrid working is here to stay for most parts of the workforce that can do it. Across all countries, 35% of the total office workers interviewed would consider changing job if they’re not offered an opportunity to work remotely.

“I truly believe we will not be going back to the 5-days-a week in the office” routine, said Andrei Postoaca, chief executive of Ipsos Digital. “that era has stopped.”

Employers may drive workers to quit (Source IPSOS)
Employers may drive workers to quit (Source IPSOS)
Employers may drive workers to quit (Source IPSOS)

The desire for a hybrid model is most apparent in the U.K., India and Australia, where around 70% of respondents said their companies were open to flexible work policies. Europe and American employers were not so inclined. In France, the most extreme of all countries surveyed, a third of companies don’t think their employer would allow flexibility and nearly half of workers wanted to go back full time.

Keeping professional skills up to date was also not seen as an issue when working from home by more than half of the sample, but respondents in Germany and France said they struggled to maintain their skills in the out-of-office environment.

The U.S. was the most polarized country surveyed and had the largest number of workers who want to work remotely, with 21% of workers seeking full remote work and 34% seeking a full return to the office.

Ipsos’s Postoaca says the focus is now on the consequences of a hybrid work structure and how companies can measure economic value and efficiency of human connection.

But he is certain of one thing: 5 days a week, 9-5 in the office has ended.

Who will hold out

Employers are at a confusing crossroads. They faced the highest “quit rates” ever recorded in April and May 2021, while at the same time reports have found over half of respondents were missing their colleagues and another third were complaining of burn out, according to research by the Global Economic Forum.

According to McKinseynine out of 10 executives anticipate they will use a hybrid approach to work post-pandemic. Of those nine executives, their plans vary from a general outline of what they’re planning, at worst, to a high-level plan for how to carry it out, at best. Management is still lagging overall, as nearly a third of executives say that their organizations lack alignment on a high-level vision among the top team, a problem made clear in virtual CEO roundtable Fortune held yesterday.

In a study conducted by Fortune with Momentive (formerly known as SurveyMonkey), nearly half of workers (49%) who are still remote or hybrid say they will look for a new job if their employer forces them back to the office after the pandemic ends. Younger staffers express a higher rejection to returning to the office.

Among baby-boomer workers, 32% say they would look for a new job if their employer requires them to return to five days a week in the office, while a staggering 57% of millennials would do the same. The very real threat of losing young talent is why so many employers are questioning their return policies.

Jack Kennedy, economist at the global job site Indeed, pointed out that in the U.K., searches for remote work increased by around 400% compared to pre-pandemic levels. “Now that the remote work genie is out of the bottle it is highly unlikely to go back in, and with many people still expressing safety concerns and flexibility taking on a greater importance it’s hardly surprising that remote work has become a dealbreaker for many,” he said

Within tech, companies like Facebook and Amazon have recently offered employees more flexibility in their back-to-work policies. The finance is more split on the issue. In the banking sector Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are implementing strict return policies, while Citigroup is out touting its flexible policies and the NatWest chairman says London office life will never return to normal, both in a bid to recruit fresh talent from competing firms.

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