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The gulf between workers and managers is growing, amid the return to office

Many managers are considering cutting pay, reducing benefits, or even firing employees who don’t want to return to the office, says a new study.

The gulf between workers and managers is growing, amid the return to office
[Source image: Orla/Getty Images]

Managers and staff have very different expectations when it comes to flexible work, but a majority of leaders are willing to consider some pretty drastic measures in order to get their way.

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According to a recent survey conducted by GoodHire of 3,500 American managers, 77% believe there should be severe consequences—including loss of benefits, reduction in pay, and even termination—imposed on employees who refuse to the return to the office. When accounting for seniority, 80% of senior-level managers, 79% of C-suite leaders, 77% of CEOs, and 73% of middle managers share that sentiment.

“Now that things are somewhat coming back to normal, the old ways of thinking about employees and companies’ control over where they work is starting to creep back in,” says GoodHire’s chief operating officer, Max Wesman.

At the same time, employees have reason to stand their ground. Not only are they enjoying the most competitive labor marketplace in a generation, but the majority of leaders admit that productivity has not been negatively impacted by remote work. According to the study, 73% agreed that productivity and engagement had either improved or stayed the same in a remote environment.

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“Employees have the upper hand because the job market is tight, and it’s really expensive to find and replace people,” Wesman says. “Even with that [dynamic], it seems like, now that life is returning to normal, companies want to reassert their dominance within that power dynamic.”

Proximity Bias Is Alive and Well

Wesman says he is doubtful that many will take such drastic steps to force employees back into the office, even if they believe some consequence should be imposed. That attitude, however, could still have real consequences.

“Just the fact that managers are even contemplating these types of harsh treatments of their employees, it has to have an impact on employee morale,” he says. “Employees who choose not to come to the office might be treated adversely.”

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Companies may be allowing a variety of remote and hybrid work options, but experts warn that employees who show up to the office may be treated differently. According to a recent survey conducted by Gartner, nearly two-thirds of leaders say those who come into the office are likely to receive preferential treatment, better known as “proximity bias.”

“It’s painful to say, but if you want to get ahead in your career—even in a remote/hybrid/flexible world—it really behooves you to come into the office and actually see your manager face-to-face,” says Brian Kropp, the chief of research for Gartner’s HR practice, adding that doing so won’t actually impact employee output. “In the eyes of most managers, you will be perceived as someone who cares more, is working hard, and you’re more likely to be promoted, and get a better raise, if you work from the office.”

Managers Aren’t Prepared for Hybrid Work

Despite the fact that many have been operating remotely for the better part of the past two years, Gartner’s data suggest that a majority of managers aren’t yet prepared to manage a remote or hybrid team, and many won’t ever be.

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Kropp explains that a majority of employers are offering some form of workplace flexibility, with only 18% planning a full-scale return to the office, but not all hybrid structures are the same. Instead, Kropp explains that there are two distinct hybrid models emerging: radical flexibility, which gives employees full control over where they work each day, and one that designates a few specific days for remote work each week.

“If you’ve got a managerial population that doesn’t have a lot of sophistication and maturity, and you put them in a world of radical flexibility, it’s going to be a train wreck,” he says. Right now about one-third of managers are currently managing in a way that supports radical flexibility, says Kropp, and with support and coaching, another quarter or so can learn to manage this way. But the rest of managers “are just never going to get there,” he says.

Kropp adds that most managers were not promoted to a leadership position, nor trained, with a hybrid or remote future in mind. While many have demonstrated incredible adaptability, the majority still struggle with that transition, depend on direct, in-person oversight, and expect staff to conform to their management preferences.

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“Managers who are in the office and just lead by osmosis and serendipity, their thought is by having everyone in the same place at the same time work will just happen,” he says. “They don’t need to have that intentionality, because they can lean on . . . being in the same room to make things work.”

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

According to Jim Link, the Society for Human Resource Management’s chief HR officer, the workplace has simply changed too much too quickly for most leaders to adapt, so it’s no surprise that many are pushing for a return to pre-pandemic workplace norms. “We took the idea of agility and flexibility in all things related to work 15 to 20 years forward in the space of two years,” he said, adding that most weren’t able to adapt to such a rapid transition.

Link explains that employees might need to wait, or change jobs, in order to achieve the level of flexibility seen during the pandemic but believes the workforce will only continue to move in that direction, even if it takes a temporary step backward. In the meantime, however, he is doubtful that many leaders will take drastic steps to deal with employees who refuse to return to the office, given the current labor market.

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“Some version in the middle is going to be that place where we land for the foreseeable future,” he says. “Yes, supervisors, managers, leaders, and CEOs in many cases would like to have everyone back within their visual range immediately, but in the world in which we’re living today, that just quite simply won’t be the reality.”

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About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist and public speaker born, raised and based in Toronto, Canada. Lindzon's writing focuses on the future of work and talent as it relates to technological innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, technology, politics, sports and music.

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