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  • Brendan Shaw

Workers of the world resign!: What if post-pandemic staff refuse to return to the office?

Brendan Shaw

"Natural ragione è di ciascuno che ci nasce, la sua vita, quanto può, aiutare e conservare e difendere (Every person born into this world, has a natural right to sustain, preserve and defend his own life to the best of his ability)."

- Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, 1353 (written during the Black Death pandemic)

"Stop moaning ... playing the victim card."

- Bill Michael, UK PwC Chairman in a memo to staff, February 2021

"I've just had it. They feel like we're not working if they can't see us. It's a Boomer power-play."

- Portia Twidt, 33 year old mother of two kids who quit as a compliance specialist, June 2021

"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."

- Fortune, July 2021

"If after 15 months, you have only a 'suspicion' about what your people are up to, and find it 'hard to know' who are your top performers, you are guilty of neglect at best, mismanagement at worst. The worry is that if you manage people in this way, you probably did so before the pandemic and will continue to do so afterwards, whether or not your people return to the office."

- Andrew Hill, Financial Times, August 2021

Are we living in the middle of a global revolution right now?

I recently had a video call with a colleague in Shanghai discussing how she was coping with working from home during the middle of one of China's tough pandemic lockdowns.

"Brendan," she said, "I used to spend three hours every day driving to and from work in Shanghai's traffic jams. In the lockdown, I get to work from home. I spend more time with my husband and my kid and I still get more work done here at home. But now, the company wants me to come back to the office."

This friend is actually the head of her company's Shanghai office. She's a senior executive.

So, I suggested to her to that perhaps she propose to her CEO that she and all of her staff work at home at least one or two days a week permanently, even after the pandemic had finished.

My friend looked at me incredulously like I had committed heresy.

Then her eyes widened. She was having an epiphany there and then on the Zoom call.

We've seen all this before: the Black Death

Pandemics have a funny way of initiating social transformation.

The Black Death of the 14th century CE was arguably the worst pandemic in recorded human history.

The Black Death, a plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, swept across Asia, the Middle East and Europe during the Middle Ages, in the process killing half of Europe’s population.

The Black Death killed up to 200 million people at a time when the world's population was perhaps 450 million and led to many social, economic and cultural changes.

There are even debates going on about whether the Black Death precipitated the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance.

But one definite effect of the Black Death was to trigger the collapse of feudalism in Europe and the rise of wage-paid workers.

Prior to the Black Death, the European economy was built on feudalism and serfdom, where local peasant farmers would work for the local lord for no pay.

When the Black Death killed half of Europe's population, it particularly affected poorer serfs and their families, due to cramped living conditions. People lost faith in institutions like the Church and "many flourishing cities became virtual ghost towns for a time."

The dramatic collapse in the European population led to a shortage of workers. Serfs walked off farms which, in turn, led to the lords needing to pay serfs to keep them on - triggering the growth of paid employment and the eventual collapse of the feudal system that had operated in Europe for thousands of years.

For the nobility of Europe, of course, this looked like the end of civilisation.

Once the Black Death had passed, wealthy landowners and employers tried to push back against paid labour, leading to peasant revolts through the second half of the 14th century CE.

COVID-19 and the changing world of work

Fast forward to 2021 CE.

Consider these recent survey results:

  • Ipsos polling firm in a survey of 2,700 workers across nine countries found that more than a third of all office workers would quit if they were forced to go back into the office full time

  • A survey of 1,000 US adults by Morning Consult found that 39% said they’d consider quitting if their bosses weren’t flexible about them working from home and showed that 49% of the respondents who said they’d consider quitting were millennials and Gen Z – i.e. adults born after 1980

  • Another survey found that more than one-fifth of US workers - and 30% of people under 40 - have seriously considered a career change since the start of the pandemic.

  • A survey by Harvard Business School found that 81% of people who worked from home during the pandemic either don't want to go back to office work or want a hybrid model

  • Three-quarters of Australians say their ideal work environment is a mix of remote and in-person working

  • According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of remote employees don't want to return to the office and 58% said they would look for a new job if they were forced to return to the office

  • A global survey by PwC of 32,500 people in 19 countries found that only 1 in 10 of those who can work remotely want to go back to a traditional commute and work environment full time.

You don't have to be Karl Marx to realise there's a revolution coming.

A sizeable chunk of the global workforce don't want to go back to the drudgery of Monday to Friday 9-to-5 in the office with hot-desking, small workspaces, crappy air-conditioning and the boss looking over their shoulder every five minutes.

In surveys across the world, the reasons workers of the world don't want to go back are to avoid long commutes to the office, get more time with the family, be able to choose where they work, live in cheaper areas, save money and have the freedom to work the way they want.

At the start of the lockdowns around the world many companies told their employees not to come into the office and to work from home for pure health and safety reasons.

Employees ran amok, taking the opportunity to change where 'home' was. They abandoned major cities and preferred to work instead from their home, the beach, a better neighbourhood, a holiday destination. or from their farm.

A new term 'digital nomads' was born to describe people who travel the world and do their job working from anywhere, needing only a laptop, the internet and a Zoom account to get their job done.

Employees quickly pivoted to 'remote' working from home - or wherever the hell they were - and proved that, actually, they could do just as well doing the work they needed to do without being in the office.

And guess what?

They liked it.

They like it so much that now as the bosses of the world are starting try to call their staff back to the office like the 'old days', their employees are pushing back.

This is partly because workers are not yet convinced that the commutes and confined offices are safe places to be when COVID is still floating in the air.

But mainly because they don't want to work in the office most of the time.

In one global survey the Indians and the British are the most radical revolutionaries in this global transformation with 49% - almost half - of all Indian workers saying they would look for another job if they couldn't work from home, while 40% of Brits said they would.

Source: Sophie Mellor. 2021."Office workers to bosses: I’ll quit if I have to go full-time back to the office", Fortune, 26 July.

How have the bosses responded?

Well, a bit like the nobles of the 14th century, it depends who you are.

While McKinsey estimates that 9-out-of-10 employers anticipate they will have some sort of hybrid model for work, many executives say they don't have agreement within their own company on this.

Before the pandemic practically all bosses expected their workers to be at the office most of the time, but post-pandemic this has shifted substantially with 50% of bosses now expecting their employees will spend up to half of their employment working remotely.

Source: Alexander. A. et a. 2021. "What executives are saying about the future of hybrid work", McKinsey Insights, 17 May.

Some employers have accepted this revolution better than others.

Some firms in the finance sector, like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have pushed back hard against the idea, while others like Citigroup and Natwest have apparently been more open to it.

Meanwhile, the tech sector has gone all 'Old World' on us.

In a blistering irony, Google - the doyen of tech-savvy, new world working - has announced it will 'dramatically' cut the pay of employees who refuse to come back and work in the office.

Amazon has just had to backdown and allow its employees to at least work a few days a week remotely after previously insisting it wants everyone back at the office.

Meanwhile, Facebook has also said it will cut salaries for those choosing to work remotely and not return to the office, indicating that it wants more people working remotely.

Basically, all the leading tech companies of the world, the companies that invented remote working, are struggling to get their staff back into the offices where management can keep an eye on them.

The actions of tech companies in cutting the salaries of those who work from home also shows that employers want to cash in on the savings of their employees working from home in the future too.

It's not just the remote workers who want to make more money out of this. Bosses want their share as well.

Managers and leaders the world over are at risk of being left behind as the traditional in-person command and control style of management that has endured for centuries is being systematically destroyed by COVID-19, digital cafes and Zoom meetings.

Leaders will have to stop blaming their bad management on remote workers and start learning how to lead.

Workers of the world resign!

What's going on here?

Well, it seems the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a major rethink by workers about how and where they want to work.

It turns out we are on the cusp of the 'Great Resignation'.

In short, the current pandemic has triggered a rethink right across the workforce. People have been forced to find new, flexible ways of working at exactly the same time they have been challenged by global events to consider what are the important things in life.

Many surveys have found people are even prepared to take a pay cut in return for the ability to work remotely. In fact, thousands of Google workers recently agreed to pay cuts so they could keep working remotely.

And all of this comes at a time when employers are finding it hard to recruit the right staff, wages have stagnated and US President Joe Biden is urging companies to "pay them more" if they want to hang on to their staff.

UK job vacancies are at a record high, US unemployment rates have fallen to their lowest level since the pandemic started and in Australia the unemployment rate is at its lowest level in 12 years - 4.6% - despite having just gone through its first recession in 30 years, although Australia's figure is influenced by current forced lockdowns and reduced hours.

The balance of power may be shifting from employers to employees for the first time in decades as workers worldwide are having a post-pandemic realisation that enough is enough and there's more to life than this.

Class conflict has returned to the centre of economics.

Everybody's talking about a new way of working

So, what does it all mean?

The pandemics, digital nomads, Zoom calls, WFH, labour shortages, the Great Resignation, the Great Reset, empty cities and millions of people wanting a change?

A bit like the serfs and nobles of 14th century Europe, we'll have to find a way to work this out.

Watch this space ....

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