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After Covid ’19, What Next?

With the corona virus pandemic receding with every vaccine jab that pierces an arm, the push by some employers to get people back into offices is beginning to clash with workers who have embraced remote work as the new normal, Bloomberg editors report.

While companies like Google, Ford Motors and Citigroup Inc. have promised greater flexibility for their workforce, many chief executives have publicly emphasized the importance of working from the office. They lament the danger of remote work, saying it diminishes collaboration and company culture.

JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon said at a recent conference that it doesn’t work for those who “want to hustle.” But many employees are not so sure. For one reason, the past year has proved that lots of work can be done from anywhere without long distance commuting to the office on private cars or crowded buses.

Some people have moved on to embrace the routine office culture. Others have lingering worries about the virus and vaccine-hesitant colleagues or next shop-door neighbours. There is also the notion that some bosses, particularly those of a generation less familiar to remote work, are eager to regain tight control of their workers.“They feel like we’re not working when they can’t see us,” one employee said. “It’s a boomer power-play,” said another.

However, it is still early to predict how the post-pandemic work environment is likely to look. In countries like America, only about 28% of office workers are back at their buildings, according to an index of 10 metropolitan areas compiled by security company Kastle Systems. Many employers are still being lenient with policies as the virus lingers, vaccinations continue to roll out and childcare situations remain erratic.

As office returns accelerate, some employees may want different options. A May survey of 1,000 adults in America showed that 39% would consider quitting their jobs if their employers were not flexible about remote work. Among the millennials, that figure rose to 49% according to a poll by Morning Consult. The generational difference clearly accounted for the higher percentage.

The idea of saving money by not commuting to work, given the possible risk of accidents, kidnapping and similar ugly road experiences in recent times are the top benefits of remote work, according to a FlexJobs survey of 2,100 people released in April. More than a third of the respondents said they save at least N2.05 million per year by working from home. Not having to commute is the top benefit for remote workers.

Jimme Hendrix, a 30-year-old software developer in the Netherlands, quit his job in December as the web-application company he worked for was gearing up to bring employees back to the office in February. “During the Covid period, I really started to see how much I enjoyed working from home,” Hendrix said. Now he does freelance work and helps his girlfriend grow her art business. He used to spend two hours each day commuting. Now the young man and his girl friend are considering selling their car and relying on bikes. One of the main benefits, he says, is more control over his own time: “I can just do whatever I want around the house, like a quick chore didn’t have to wait until like 8 p.m. anymore, or I can go for a quick walk.”

Of course, not everyone has the flexibility to choose. For the millions of frontline workers who stock the shelves of grocery stores, care for patients in hospitals and nursing homes like orphanages and motherless babies’ homes, paint and decorate homes, offices and government buildings, or the courier who drops off packages at people’s doors, there are scant alternative options to showing up in person.

Many are weighing their alternatives, said Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of Management at Texas A&M University, who is researching on why people normally quit jobs. Bosses taking a hard stance should beware, particularly given labour shortages in the economy, he advises employers. “If you are a company that thinks everything is going back to normal, you may be right but it is pretty risky to hope that is the case,” he said.

At least some companies on top the corporate ladder seem to be paying attention. Between Nov. 24 and Dec, 5, 2020, PwC surveyed 133 executives in America. They came from public and private companies in financial services, technology, media, retail products and telecommunications. Of the 133 executives, less than 20% said they wanted to go back to pre-pandemic routines. 13% were prepared to let go of the office for good.

Alison Green, founder of workplace-advice website Ask a Manager, said she had been contacted by many people with doubts about going back to office work, citing concerns about unvaccinated colleagues and Covid precautions. Some said they were looking for jobs at companies they felt would take the virus seriously and let them work from anywhere. Green also pointed out the advantages of continued work in the offices. Some things are indeed lost with remote work, she said, like opportunities for collaboration or learning for junior employees. But, she added: “I think we need to have a more nuanced discussion than: hustlers only do well in the office.”

For Sarah-Marie Martin, who worked as a partner at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. when the pandemic struck, the months at home gave her time to redraw the blueprint of her life.“When you have this existential experience, you have time to step back and think,” Martin said. “In my previous life, I didn’t have time to get super deep and philosophical.” The mother of five moved her family to the New Jersey shore. And once the push to get back to offices picked up, the idea of commuting hardly seemed alluring. This spring, Martin accepted a fully remote position as chief financial officer of Yumi, a Los Angeles-based maker of baby food.

Gene Garland, 24, unknowingly opened the floodgates to people’s frustrations about office returns. After his employer, an IT company, in April told people they needed to start coming in, two of his close colleagues handed in their resignation letters. Garland tapped out a tweet. Hundreds of people responded, with many outlining plans, or at least hopes, to leave their own jobs. Garland says he personally had no plans to quit, but empathizes with those who do. “Working inside of a building really does restrict time a lot more than you think,” he said. “A lot of people are afraid of the cycle where you work and work and work — and then you die.”

Twidt, a compliance specialist had already lined up a new job by the time she handed in her resignation letter: a role at a Washington-based company. The recruiter that approached her, Twidt said, asked what it would take to get her on board. She replied that she would prefer something 100% remote. “They said, ‘we can do that for you immediately.’”

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