The Greatest Problems With The ‘Great Return’

The ‘Great Return’ consists of the post-pandemic push to get workers back into the office. Workers are, for the most part, not happy about the Great Return, says Allwork.Space, which has resulted in the ‘Great Divide.’ 

This article was originally published by Allwork.Space.

The ‘Great Return’ is the term being coined to refer to the large-scale return of workers back to the office after two years of working remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this superficially marks a return to normalcy, it is not as simple as it sounds.  

For employers, this is a time to celebrate. On the whole, however, such celebration may come at a profound cost. According to a recent Future Forum Pulse report, employers who work remotely are three times more likely to want to return to the office than employees who work remotely.  

Thus, with the ‘Great Return,’ we also have a ‘Great Divide.’ 

The values of employees and employers are clashing. Likewise, this clash shows a divide across racial and ethnic lines, potentially threatening DEI gains.  

A ‘Great Divide’ is counterproductive for workers and employers alike. If a worsening of the ‘Great Divide’ is to be ameliorated – or better, prevented altogether – employers will need to make concessions and accommodations for their worker’s desires for greater flexibility.  

A salient lesson from the Great Resignation on this front is that if such concessions and accommodations are not made, workers will take it into their own hands by looking for new work elsewhere — somewhere they believe such accommodations are being made.  

The Great Return is fueling a ‘Great Divide.’ A hybrid approach may bridge the divide.

Generally speaking, employers are excited about returning to the office, not employees. According to the Future Forum Pulse report, 78% of workers want flexibility with where they work, and 95% of workers want flexibility with when they work.  

As it stands, managers prefer to spend most of their time in the office. According to Future Forum VP Brian Elliot: “While executives are banging down the door to get back to their corner offices, non-executive employees are demanding flexibility in where and when they work. Companies must do more to bridge this gap in order to attract and retain top talent.”  

Various case studies and reports confirm, however, that a middle-way approach is the most viable path forward – as opposed to the oft black and white thinking of ‘either in-office or remote.’ 

For instance, according to IBM’s Chief Human Resources Officer Nickle McMoreaux, the majority of workers (63%) want a hybrid model – that is, neither an entirely remote form of working nor an entirely in-office form of working.  

The Great Divide is cutting across racial lines, threatening DEI gains.

With the Great Return being more or less underway, DEI gains are now under threat. According to the same Future Forum report, the bulk of workers who are interested in remaining remote are in underrepresented demographic groups. 

In terms of ‘employee experience’ markers, remote workers consistently score the highest – which translates into remote work being a better experience for workers, generally, than in-person work.  

For people of color, for instance, markers such as ‘feelings of belonging,’ ‘work-life balance,’ ‘productivity,’ and ‘access to resources,’ among other positive experiential markers, all greatly improved when they shifted from in-office work to remote work.   

This is consistent with the fact that workers from underrepresented demographic backgrounds typically report higher rates of microaggressions and instances of workplace harassment when working in-office, as opposed to working remotely.  

The Great Return, in fact, will vastly benefit white knowledge workers – consequently risking an increase of proximity bias for white in-office workers – who are the only demographic that reports a desire to return to the office on average. This comes at the expense of less represented workers who generally have a greater preference for hybrid and remote work.  

The number of Black knowledge workers interested in working from home full-time has increased each quarter since May, while the opposite is true for white knowledge workers. Overall, white knowledge workers are most interested in returning to the office full-time, as compared to employees of color, and this preference has remained consistent since our surveys began.  

Thus, if DEI gains are to be kept, accommodations for workers from underrepresented demographic backgrounds need to be made. And this can easily be done by accommodating the majority of workers who would prefer a hybrid option for work.  

Conclusion 

Even as things stand, the return to the office is rather unpredictable. For instance, some other variant of COVID may emerge, resulting in another string of measures pushing more workers into remote work settings.   

Thus, as we already see, the assumptions about the Great Return are largely speculative. Only 1 out of 6 workers in Manhattan will return to working in an office, and many major companies like Google are already looking to implement a hybrid model of work.  

There is little to no consensus on how to move forward with implementing such models, however.   

What’s key to bridging the gap between employees and employers must be an open conversation about how gains made during the work-from-home COVID era can be retained. 

Making investments into hybrid work modalities is a good start in the right direction. However, the process will be complex. Childcare, COVID safety protocols, equity gains, and other salient factors need to be strategically considered before implementing any major changes.  

Otherwise, employers can only expect more Great Resignation-type behaviors from employees, effectively undermining their own enterprises. 

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