In the war for talent, some major employers—and smaller ones too—could be making a strategic blunder.
They’re driven by desperation. Frustrated business owners in Springfield, Mo., for example, joined to put up billboards: “GET OFF YOUR BUTT! Get. To. Work. Apply Anywhere.” The U.S. labor market hasn’t been this tight in decades, and the emerging consensus is that employers can gain a competitive advantage by adopting liberal remote-work policies. Laszlo Bock, CEO of Humu and Google’s former HR chief, tells Fortune that “traditional banks, which emphasize primarily in-person cultures, are indeed worried about losing top talent to tech companies that offer more flexibility.”
At least at first glance, those banks are right to be worried. Surveys consistently show that remote workers overwhelmingly want to stay remote, and some tech firms are offering them the world. Twitter has told employees that if their work can be done from home, they can do it that way forever. Facebook’s stance is similar. Salesforce and Spotify have adopted “work from anywhere” policies. Their reasoning: If you don’t offer job candidates the freedom they demand, the best ones won’t even consider you.
But what if that conclusion isn’t right? Some indicators support a contrary hypothesis: that the most ambitious job candidates might prefer to forsake the workplace libertarians in favor of the pugnacious traditionalists, companies that unapologetically want employees on the premises as much as possible.
Consider Goldman Sachs. Remote work “is not a new normal,” CEO David Solomon bluntly told a conference audience earlier this year. “It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” Solomon’s competitors at JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley feel much the same. “We want people back at work,” Chase’s Jamie Dimon told a Wall Street Journal conference. “Yes, people don’t like commuting, but so what?” Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman pointedly told employees, “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office.”
Yes, people don’t like commuting, but so what?Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chas
Now examine the latest findings from Universum, a firm that advises companies on employer branding. Each year it surveys college and business school students about their most admired prospective employers, and this year it also questioned respondents about their personalities to identify five job candidate personas. The most ambitious candidates are the “Go-Getters,” who are focused on “high performance, rapid promotion, prestige, and attaining a high level of responsibility.” The three U.S. employers, across all industries, for which they most want to work? Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase.
The survey was conducted entirely during the pandemic, when the remote-work views of these firms were known. The results suggest that the most ambitious job candidates will not only tolerate office-based work, they may well prefer it.
That finding shouldn’t be a surprise. Substantial research shows that in-person interaction offers many benefits to employees as well as to employers. Employees build stronger relationships with peers and bosses, in part because in-person interaction creates trust much more effectively than remote interaction does. Employees learn more and learn faster in person. They’re more likely to contribute to creativity and innovation.
Job candidates who most want to gain those advantages—those who want to rise furthest and fastest—appear to be the ones who are most eager to work at companies that demand substantial office time. Dimon had good reason to say that remote work “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle.”
While it’s tempting to view the remote-work debate as between loosey-goosey Silicon Valley and strict Wall Street, that framing isn’t valid. Some major tech companies, notably Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet, emphatically want most of their workers back in the office, though the ebb and flow of COVID-19 has disrupted the scheduling. Even in the tech sector, illiberal remote-work policies seem to correlate with employer attractiveness. In the Universum rankings, business students in total say their top employer choices across industries are those three tech leaders, the ones with demanding return-to-the-office policies.
These counterintuitive trends are clear. But just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, no remote-work policy will be invulnerable to post-pandemic reality. In tumultuous times, all policies are experiments. Real estate values, commuting times, supply-chain operations, and more will revert only partially to pre-pandemic norms in coming months. New technology will gradually transform remote work.
For example, collaboration technology will enable “not just as good, but significantly better experiences than the face-to-face experiences we used to have in the office,” claims Cisco CFO Scott Herren. Even Dimon acknowledges that “certain jobs, you can probably do four days a week from home. That’s fine. I’m not against something like that. So it’ll be by job type.”
While the right policy will always be a moving target, it seems likely most employees will continue to favor generous remote-work policies—the more generous, the better. Employers just need to remember they could be making a costly error by assuming those workers are the ones they want most.
This article has been updated to reflect Laszlo Bock’s title.
Flexibility as the new normal
Tech companies have been leaders in forming post-pandemic remote work policies, in part because many began letting employees work remotely years before COVID-19 arrived.
Employees may work remotely if their jobs can be done remotely, but the company will organize regular in-person gatherings for all workers. Employees who want to work in an office are asked to come in at least half-time.
Most employees will work one to three days a week in an office. Those who don’t live near an office or who have a job that doesn’t require one will work remotely full-time, while “the smallest population of our workforce,” says the company, will work in an office four to five days a week.
With a manager’s approval, employees may adopt any mix of home and office working; if an employee is far from a Spotify office and wants to work in a coworking space, Spotify will cover the cost.
Employees may live anywhere and may work at a Twitter office (if one is nearby) or at home, or in combination, as they wish.
A version of this article appears in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “What gets lost in the remote work debate.”
Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.