After Getting Used to Working From Home, Employees Resist Return to the Office

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Katy McAvoy works on her blog in her living room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S., in March.
Katy McAvoy works on her blog in her living room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S., in March.Credit: EMILY ELCONIN / Reuters
נתנאל גאמס
Netanel Gamss

“I have an employee who won’t be coming back to the office for the next month because his dog has gotten so used to his working at home. He has to set up a gradual-separation plan,” said L., a manager at an Israeli startup, describing her efforts to get her staff to resume working at the office. “I’m willing to bet that he’s going to quit within three months, tops,” she added.

The employee in question served in an elite army tech unit and lives in central Tel Aviv, which makes him a desirable employee for high-tech companies. L. said she is sure that the employee in question is already getting ready to change jobs.

“It’s a pity that Karl Marx can’t see how the world we live in has been revolutionized. Companies are scared of their employees – I’m very curious to see what will happen. It’s just like it is with workers on unpaid leave, just a little less obvious – people have gotten used to not working,” L. says about employees who have spent the better part of the coronavirus year working from home.

Many of them have grown quite comfortable with remote work. If they were reluctant at the outset of the pandemic a year ago, by now they have come to appreciate the flexibility it affords. If they are willing to return to the office, they don’t want to do it full time.

Employers have other ideas in mind. In the United States, Google is accelerating its plans to bring employees back into the office and informed staff that starting September 1 anyone who wants to spend more than 14 days a year working remotely must get special permission.

The man with the dog isn’t the only staffer L. has to deal with now that the company is calling workers back to the office. “I have an employee that used to commute five days a week. Now, she’s threatening to quit because we’re asking her to work just two days a week in the office,” L. said.

“It’s crazy. We’ve gotten to the point that workers aren’t willing to fight traffic to come to work. I just hope people will calm down a little.”

A survey by CoFaceBDI for TheMarker found that among Israeli human resources managers, 45% say they intend employees to come back to the workplace full-time. Another 23% say they will allow staff to work two or three days a week at home and another 10% one day. The rest say they plan to introduce flexible policies or haven’t yet decided.

Tehila Yanai, co-CEO of CofaceBDI, laughed when she recalled that in previous surveys the company found that managers regarded themselves as generous when they allowed workers to work one day a week at home. Surveys in years past had shown that almost no companies allowed remote work,

“But now, because of the coronavirus, it’s become almost commonplace. Companies are seeing the benefit, such as being able to save money on office rental,” she said.

Tehila Yanai, co-CEO of CofaceBDI. Credit: Yehuda Sobol

Beggars and choosers

“Until two years ago, employees would beg for mercy from their bosses for the right to work at home. If they got it, they would express amazement about how generous their boss was. Now, it’s become run of the mill. It’s not a special request, it’s a minimum requirement. The kind that if they don’t get it, they can be expected to quit,” said Yanai.

Hila Mukevisuis, vice president of human resources at the Israeli food maker Strauss, said that even job candidates were asking about flexible work conditions.

“I just hired someone who lives in the south for our office in Petah Tikva,” Mukevisuis said. “She’ll start by working three days at home and the rest of the time at the office – that’s what enabled her to take a job with us. Before she simply wouldn’t have applied for the job because she would have been required to commute five days a week from the south to the center of the country.”

Mukevisuis has no complaints, “From my perspective, it’s great, because it enables me to choose from a wider range of candidates.”

Strauss employs 15,000 people worldwide, of whom 5,500 are in Israel. Among the 5,500 Israelis, some 1,200 office workers had been working from home full time over the past year. As the company begins recalling them back to the office, Mukevisuis said she is aiming to create a “hybrid” policy under which some employees will be able to work one day a week at home and others two or three days and in some cases even four days.

For Strauss, he said, it’s important that staff show up at least one day a week at the office so that face-to-face meetings and training can take place.

Yanai said that to some degree employees are becoming more pampered in the post-COVID labor market.

“We used to think that we needed to pay the price of traffic jams to make a living and have a career, but the reality is changing. People are no longer willing to pay the price of sitting in traffic. They now see that they can achieve what they want from their jobs working at home. They think their employers have to take that into account and allow them to work remotely, at least part of the time,” she said.

Traffic on Ayalon Highway, Tel Aviv, in 2012.Credit: David Bachar

Ilana Fahima, executive vice president for global human resources at Israel Chemicals, said her company had begun a pilot program before the pandemic erupted that let employees work from home. The initiative for it came from above in response to what it saw as the changing needs of younger staff.

“The young generation thinks about alternatives – they see other companies are becoming more flexible. We have to adjust to changes in the [labor] market,” she said. “We don’t just want to compete but to lead and identify in advance what changes are expected. It’s clear which way the world is going.”

ICL employs 11,000 people around the world, of which 4,500 are based in Israel. Of those, 700 are in office jobs that can be performed remotely. The company is adopting the pilot program’s format of four days a week in the office and one day at home.

Mukevisuis said that at the start of the pandemic, when employees were sent home to work, there were a lot of concerns about lost productivity. “But we’ve seen in retrospect that everyone worked efficiently and met their targets. I haven’t identified any harm to output due to remote work,” she said.

The CofaceBDI survey found the same thing. Among the companies surveyed, 55% reported that productivity was no different when employees worked remotely. Some 13% said it actually improved. Only 21% said it fell and another 8% said it fell by a lot. Just 3% said it wasn’t productive at all.

Among tech companies, 70% said productivity remained the same when staff worked at home and another 17% said it was a lot more productive.

Karin Tucker, the head of human resources for Amdocs Israel, said her company, too, began a pilot program a month before the pandemic that allowed employees to work one day a week at home. A year later, she said, the company is happy with the results.

Amdocs’ 4,000 Israeli staff – out of a global workforce of 27,000 – will be moving to a model of three days in the office and two at home. “We still want to see employees here because we think certain things can only happen at the office, such as informal conversations, brainstorming and innovation – things you can’t achieve when everyone is closed in their square in Zoom,” Tucker explained.

Company satisfied

Fahima said ICL was also satisfied with how employees performed during the coronavirus year; the company achieved most of its goals. Nevertheless, ICL still wants office staff to work in the office three or four days a week now that the crisis has ended,

Despite the fact that companies reported that overall worker productivity was unharmed by remote work, two-thirds reported that managerial meetings online weren’t as productive as face to face. Yanai said that on the whole remote work placed a heavier burden on managers. It was more difficult to measure performance, they could no longer make eye contact with employees and start conversations easily. Contact by phone or Zoom, she said, is much more strenuous and less casual than in the office.

Moreover, a third of the HR managers surveyed said employees felt more pressure at home, versus 58% who said they saw no change. Yanai, for her part, said it wasn’t fair to use those results to judge how things would be in the long run. During the coronavirus, she noted, children were home.

“If we ask that question again when things have returned to normal, the level of pressure will undoubtedly go down because of the great flexibility and because they no longer have to deal with traffic,” she said. “People can adjust their work hours to the family.”

That, however, will only work if employers adopt hybrid modes. Working full time at home will only create confusion as workers struggle to separate their work and home lives, creating new pressures in the process.

Tucker said Amdocs had taken steps to deal with the issue, for instance, by shortening meeting times, fixed lunch hours, hours when no meetings are scheduled and dedicated time for solo projects.

On the other hand, Yanai added, remote workers are taking fewer sick days when they are at home. “Before, when an employee felt a little sick and couldn’t get out of bed, he took a sick day,” she said. “But when he’s working at home, he just gets up later and works into the night. He doesn’t want to waste a sick day without a good reason.”

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