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Employees Mourn Return to Office and Employers Celebrate

May 13, 2021

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

On Monday, May 10th, Governor Whitmer announced that Michigan achieved the 55% threshold of the population having received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.  This milestone was identified as required in the “The Vacc to Normal Plan” to allow all in-person work to resume.  In-person work begins two weeks after the date the milestone was reached, which is May 24th.  This reopening has many employers smiling and many employees mourning as the flexibility that work from home provided may be ending.

To provide a brief benchmark, a majority of Ford Motor’s global employees who have not returned to work yet are expected to start doing so this summer through a new hybrid work schedule that should give employees more flexibility on the work schedule.  GM is expecting to continue the hybrid approach as well.  And more recently, Stellantis is doing the same.  The CEO of Google stated in an email that 60% of Google’s staff will work in the office “a few days a week.” Another 20% will be able to relocate to other company sites, while the remaining one-fifth can apply to permanently work from home.

As ASE’s recent COVID-19 Business Impact Survey showed, 52% of ASE members plan to return to work with a hybrid model.  As the cork was removed from the bottle because of the pandemic, the genie will be hard to return as the pandemic eases.  Although employers were forced upon the remote workforce model because of the pandemic, in most cases, it was not shown to lead to less productivity, albeit it led to greater hours at work and possible burnout issues.  Further, the pandemic forced employers to understand and identify new tools to communicate and continue the seamless flow of work outcomes.

For those thinking of the return to workplace as a make-or-break issue for employees, the number one reason for not returning 100% back to work is talent.  For years millennials were arguing the need for more flexibility at work, especially today as they enter the sandwich generation, taking care of both children and parents.  The pandemic forced employers to be more flexible.  Further, as it turned out, because of family responsibilities, many surveys found that women were the most likely to drop from the workforce because even with flexibility, as primary caregivers, they could not do all at the same time.  It is a real struggle.  Finally, working remotely, in particular in isolation, has given rise to greater mental health issues.  Therefore, a remote or hybrid workplace has become a DE&I hot potato for many employers. 

On the other hand, a number of surveys have shown that employees will likely quit if forced back to the workplace.  Today, it is (for lack of a better description) a sellers’ market for talent.  Employers cannot find the talent it needs for long-term growth, and the recent U.S. Department of Labor report shows that job openings are at an all-time high, with widening gap of workers willing to take on those jobs.   Also, a recent survey found that there are over 500K manufacturing jobs that are unable to be filled and that number is expected to grow to over 800K in the next few years.   The workers who could work these jobs seem not interested.

There are a number of reasons for the current worker shortage situation including those eligible for retirement looking at their resources and adopting an “it’s the only life I have approach” and retiring.  This issue may be influencing at least one in three employees who do not come back to the workplace.  For others, the pandemic assistance (tax free up to $10,600) and schools reopening may be delaying return to work until the fall for many. Finally, employees are reviewing their career path and trajectory and saying they want to try new things (back to this is the “only life” philosophy).  

As Jason Rowe in his article, employers have a number of issues to work out when making a remote work approach permanent.  There are jobs that need to be at the physical workplace, and there are jobs that don’t.  Employers will have to catalogue these jobs and develop recruitment plans for both.  Diversity outreach programs will have to be reviewed to create a pipeline of eligible employees in lower-level jobs, and tools such as apprenticeships and Workforce Opportunity Credits should be factored into the attraction equation.  In the competition for talent, those employers most flexible in the future will be a sure winner with attraction and retention.

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