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A Civil Rights Battle Over the Right to Remote Work is Coming

Last week, in an interview with Bloomberg, Google’s Ex-HR Chief, Laszlo Bock, said that hybrid and remote work will only last for the next three to five years, and bosses will soon want their employees back in the office (1, 2).

The news came after Google’s offices reopened officially last Monday when the company mandates employees to come in three days a week. According to Bock, who was Google’s HR Chief from 2006 to 2016, even after two years into the pandemic, the older generation of executives, even those from Silicon Valley, are not accustomed to managing their workforce remotely.

“Older leaders find it challenging to lead virtually,” said Bock.

However, most employees don’t understand why and they are expressing their concerns.

As remote employees disperse from their offices and employers demand more in-office time, we may witness a civil rights battle.

Read Also: Forget the 9-to-5 and Get Ready For The New Workforce Trend

Tech Companies in Tough Spot

At the all-hands meeting, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said, “there is a real desire for people to communicate and collaborate, so we are trying to balance everything. And we will keep a close look at all of this.”

Many companies share the balancing act of Google, particularly with rising gas prices which make traffic jams and long drives even more unappealing than they were two years ago (3).

Tech companies, in particular, have outperformed amid the coronavirus pandemic in part because of a wide array of cloud-based collaboration tools. People have also gotten used to family time and flexibility.

Currently, companies are testing how employees will react as some optional work situation becomes obligatory with the tightening of the labor market.

Megan Slabinski, District President from a consulting and staffing company Robert Half (4), stated that two-thirds of employers want their employees back in “near-full” capacity. However, at least 50% of employees say that they would look for a new job if it is mandated.

“The level of disconnect between employees and employers is fascinating,” said Slabinski.

Several companies have already changed their policies multiple times for office returns.

For instance, last June, Amazon had walked back on its original return plan, allowing its corporate workers to come back to the office three days a week instead of full time, saying that it was “learning and evolving as we go” (5). Later in October, Amazon announced that it had left the decision to individual teams (6).

Google and Microsoft had also added a 30-day “transition period” to allow their workers back into their new schedules.

Last year, Google had first tried to bring its employees back to the office before coronavirus cases had spiked again (7). The tech giant had stated that its employees could apply for remote work for up to 12 months, but it would be approved only under “the most exceptional conditions.” Further adding that they could also be called back to their assigned office at any time.

Since then, Google’s leadership has eased its tone, with the company claiming to have approved about 85% of relocation or permanent remote work requests.

“You are grownups, and we trust you to do what is right for you, your life, and your families while respecting the new baseline,” wrote Prabhakar Raghavan in a recent memo to its employees. Raghavan overseas search, ads, and commerce at Google (8). “We do not expect a 100% fidelity to the 3-2 hybrid workweek 24×7.”

“Google made record profits through the coronavirus pandemic,” said Pichai when reading from a question submitted by an employee during the meeting, which was upvoted by others on Google’s internal board named Dory. “Why is the RTO policy not working from the office when you want to or when it is needed?”

According to Pichai, one reason for this partial return is for people to get to know their colleagues.

“In the past two years, we hired so many people, and they do not have a sense of the company culture,” he pointed out.

Even Twitter, which had announced forever remote work for its employees back in 2020, told its staff that “distributing work is much harder that way.” CEO Parag Agrawal, who replaced Jack Dorsey in late 2021, stated that he hopes to see people in the office as in-person work will bring back the culture to life in a powerful way (9).”

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Playing Remote Work Arrangements with Cautions

According to Slabinski, some companies are waiting to see their peers’ actions before deciding. Amazon, for instance, has not announced a new return date.

“I think there is an element of someone has to go first in asking people back. Amazon backed away when they saw attrition, and now Google is asking people to be back on site. It is like hoping the rest of the industry join in so there won’t be any reason for resignation,” said Slabinski.

Employers are facing another challenge with schedules syncing up. While Apple has designated Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays as in-office days, other tech firms have kept their plans vague.

Colin Yasukochi, executive director from CBRE, a real estate company (10), said that “most companies are moving with caution because they don’t want to lose their key employees.”

When retention and employee satisfaction are essential across the tech industry as a record number of people are quitting their jobs and exploring new opportunities, forcing them to commute is an added risk.

“It is not a gamble I wish to make in this environment,” said Slabinski.

She also added that smaller companies often have the upper hand regarding talent. “Although they cannot compete for compensations, they could differentiate their opportunities where they also offer trust and flexibility,” said Slabinski.

Read Also: Talent Management Flexibility Required amid Work-From-Home: Experts

Office Politics

Bock currently runs an HR software company, Humu Inc, where big companies ask him for advice on the best strategy to return to office life. Bocks suggest that according to research, a mixture of three days in the office and two days remote tends to work best.

In fact, there is an entire think-influence industry around this “hybrid” future of work. Of course, it is mostly led by companies selling remote work tools for obvious reasons (11).

However, Bock doesn’t think it would last.

Bock anticipates a lopsided system for employee evaluations. He says that staff members who stay home will be at a disadvantage for better pay, promotions, and plum assignment under a hybrid model. Gamesmanship may drive these employees back to the office.

Also, bosses want their teams back in. According to Bock, senior executives at Google and other big companies are eager for a full return to office life. He imagines a slow “boil the frog.” scenario. As per the Bloomberg report (12), one unnamed executive put it to Bock recently: “We will get everyone back in office eventually. I don’t want to pick that fight right now.”

Google is one of the most prominent companies currently experimenting with a hybrid plan. Unlike Apple or Amazon, Google doesn’t make any gadgets or need to ship things. Hence, it is natural for its staff to expect flexibility. Another mostly digital company is Meta Platforms Inc has offered remote work to all its staff. But it was perhaps to help makes its case about making metaverse a real thing.

But instead of embracing work from home, Google keeps on pushing its staff to make a return and continue to invest heavily in offices. This is happening despite delays because of COVID variants and signs of productivity uptick from remote work. And it is annoying many staffers.

However, Bock said that it is an elite issue. Most employees in retail, manufacturing, and the service sector, including many of the security guards and janitors in Gooogle offices, have been going to the office this whole time.

Read Also: Gig Economy: How this could be India’s solution to the unemployment crisis

Remote Work and Civil Rights

Regardless, these changes could gradually cause a new civil rights battle over the right to be treated fairly when working remotely.

A war of words could eventually lead to courtroom dramas between remote workers who can sue companies that prioritize in-office staff with better perks. There is also an accessibility challenge for employees with disabilities. And all of these could inspire a worldwide workers’ rights movement.

For example, what rights do international employees have over those in the company’s home country? In addition, gig workers are also earning more rights, which could diminish the benefits large employers who contract workers worldwide previously gained (13).

Reports also suggest that gig workers may account for half of the total workforce by 2030 (14). In that case, the gig economy may likely reshape the future of work. Such a lack of labor capacity in skilled workers and the rise of the gig economy indicate that work’s nature is changing, and it is time for businesses to support that change.

Soon we may see companies adopting a Hollywood-style work model, where rare-knowledge and agile workers are in demand on a project-to-project basis. Or, we can expect this conflict to swell in force before this decade ends.