Employees resist employer calls to return to the office

September 12, 2022

Prior to March 2020, only about 8% of US workers performed their jobs fully remote, about 32% worked hybrid and 60% worked fully on-site at a workplace, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Two and a half years later, employers have finalized return to work plans — announcing it’s time to get back to the office and rejecting any additional delays. Many employees are crying foul.

For example, NBC News allegedly told employees they needed to return to the office.

In response, 210 guild members from NBC News signed a petition that was posted to Twitter last week issuing a “demand” that NBC News “immediately switch course.” The Guild said NBC News was being coercive, and complained that one employee was told to return to the office five days a week unless the employee’s manager authorizes otherwise. The Guild posted that all of this caused “confusion” and “anxiety.”

The Guild said, “Management would rather lose good workers who happen to live in another city than embrace the reality of a hybrid workplace or live up to their own repeated commitments to address concerns.” They encouraged NBC to prioritize “safety” and “flexibility.” They declared the plan to be a “one size fits all,” which they claim is an “outdated, unsafe, and unattractive approach to the hybrid workplace.”

NBC News reportedly denied forcing staffers to return to the office five days a week or that employees have been terminated for refusing to return to the office.

Employers should take notice that many employees don’t want things to return to “normal.” They’ve gotten a taste of the remote workplace and have determined it suits their lifestyle better than being permanently onsite. Some employees moved to other cities or even out of the United States.

A recent Gallop poll confirms the sentiment of many of today’s workers. The poll results released last month found that of the 8,090 remote-capable U.S. employees surveyed in June 2022:

  • 56% of full-time employees (more than 70 million workers) said they can perform their work remotely; 50% were already working hybrid, and 30% exclusively working remotely. Only 20% were working full-time onsite.
  • Hybrid seems to be the future of work, with the majority of those responding seeking a hybrid arrangement. Gallup predicted that fully remote work opportunities will likely decrease to about 20% even though 34% of those responding wanted fully remote.
  • Gallup predicted, “Fully on-sitework work is expected to remain a relic of the past” with only 20% of workers fully on-site compared to 60% in 2019. In fact, only 6% responded that they wanted to work fully on-site.
  • Gallup predicted “Employees who don’t work in their preferred location have significantly lower employee engagement, alongside higher burnout and desire to quit. They simply do not feel well-positioned to do their best work or live their best life.”

Employers have delayed return to work plans multiple times during the pandemic. This has only emboldened employee expectations and normalized remote work as an effective model.

Generally (absent a collective bargaining agreement or contract), employers can legally require employees to return to the office to work, unless the employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the law due to a disability, pregnancy (in Virginia) or religion.

Just because the law supports employer return to work expectations doesn’t mean employers should jump on the opportunity.

Return to work plans need to support the employee and the needs of the workplace. In requiring employees to return some or all of the time, employers need to accept that they may lose good employees and the on-site expectations need to be worth that potential loss. If on-site work is essential to an employer and an employee is unwilling to return, then perhaps that employee is no longer the best fit for that work environment. Over time, employees will find their fit and employers will juggle their wants and needs to keep their staffing.

Employers also need to make sure they comply with the variety of tax implications of having employees working in other locations. Some employers are limiting the locations where employees can work going forward in order to minimize the complexity of complying with each jurisdiction.

Employees have simply become comfortable with working remotely and employers will need to be prepared for, and accept, whatever consequences flow from mandating employees return to the office. In doing so, employers need to make firm decisions and avoid continued delay because the pushback is inevitable.