As Americans are vaccinated in increasing numbers — now over half of adults have received at least one dose — organizations are getting serious about what a return to the office will look like, if not exactly when it will take place for the majority of workers. It is a shift that’s leading to tense conversations between managers eager to return to in-person and employees adamant on flexibility.

Over the past year, the pandemic has highlighted many advantages of remote work, accelerating a trend that many career experts say was already happening. Living and working in the same space has its drawbacks. Isolation and pandemic productivity fatigue are leaving some workers burned out a year after Covid-19 hit the U.S., but some workers are willing to make new bargains to stay remote: even trade traditional workplace benefits like health care and 401(k) plans in exchange for more control over their work situation.

Data from a recent WeWork and Workplace Intelligence survey suggests that 75% of employees are willing to give up at least one benefit or perk for the freedom to choose their work environment, while 64% would pay up to $300 for access to an office space. Some benefits they are willing to forgo include biggies like health care coverage, cash bonuses, and paid time off, the survey found.

  • As organizations consider what a return to the office looks like, some employees say they would be willing to forgo traditional perks like health care and pay for access to office space.
  • Major corporations remain split on the balance between in-person and remote work, with Twitter and Microsoft among those offering more liberal work-from-home policies, while Google and Goldman Sachs are eager to return to the office.
  • Some companies like GM are outlining vague plans, and for workers intending to stay remote, experts say negotiate with managers before offices dictate a formal policy and use data to back up your argument.

It is not just WeWork data that shows why there are likely to be more new negotiation between employers and employees over work situation after Covid. Before the pandemic, just 7% of workers nationwide had access to a “flexible workplace” benefit or telework, according to a report from Pew Research based on data from a 2019 National Compensation survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In another Pew study of 5,858 working U.S. adults, 20% said they worked from home all or most of the time before the pandemic, versus 71% during Covid-19.

“The pandemic gave employers and employees alike an unexpected and quick test drive of remote work,” says Kevin Harrington, CEO of Joblist. “It’s worked better for some companies than others.”

Hyper-productivity gone wrong

It wasn’t uniformly great for employees either, no matter the benefits of more time with family and friends, and lack of commutes. The majority of remote workers before the pandemic were white-collar workers in law, finance, and other service industries. That option is also more widely available to those with at least a bachelor’s degree, women and Asian workers, Pew reports, indicating a clear divide across class and demographics.

Remote work can lead to dwindling mental health, increased depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, symptoms that are often higher among young adults between ages 18 and 24, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, many of which are entering the workforce.

“The phenomenon that we’ve seen in the last 12 months … I call this hyper-productivity gone wrong,” Tsedal Neeley, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told CNBC’s Tyler Mathisen at a recent CNBC Workforce Executive Council Member Forum. “We’re working so much, we’re producing, we’re producing, we’re substituting our commute times with more hours throughout the day and eventually we hit a wall. We are stressed. We are burned out and we start to feel negative about our work, our teams, and our organization.”

Organizations worldwide are grappling with how to bring workers back safely and efficiently, all while negotiating with new regulations, demands from their workforce and pushback from workers hoping to stay remote.

“I definitely would be thoughtful about if you can’t enable hybrid, having a really good reason why it’s really important for people to be in the office 9-5,” Microsoft chief people officer Kathleen Hogan told CNBC’s Tyler Mathisen during a recent @Work summit.

Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon has called WFH an “aberration” that the company is going to “correct as quickly as possible,” adding that remote work is “not ideal” and “not a new normal” for investment banks and businesses requiring collaboration. JPMorgan Chase expects more workers to begin returning to office soon, and its CEO Jamie Dimon has outlined several reasonswhy he won’t fully embrace remote.

GM took an interesting approach in its wording this week of a new policy, instructing employees to “work appropriately” which was also a reference to the simplified dress code instituted by GM CEO Mary Barra when she was head of HR at the company.

The new workplace negotiation

Sarah Stoddard, a career expert at Glassdoor, thinks the WeWork data on traditional benefits overstates where the most frequent new job negotiations will occur. Core benefits like vacation days, 401(k) plans, and paid time off will continue to drive employee satisfaction, she says, while perks like free food and laundry will see their appeal dissipate.

“These flashy perks don’t have a lasting impact,” Stoddard says. “The benefits really do come and go in a flash.”

Working from home, employees, particularly new hires, do miss out on the in-person communication and interactions that build camaraderie and office culture, which could lead to alienation and burnout, says Stoddard. It also diminishes the separation between work and personal life, leading some employees to overwork because hopping on a call is “easier.”

The tensions are evident in a recent Harvard Business School study of 1,500 remote workers. Just 18% of employees want to go back to the office full-time; 27% want to work permanently remote; and 61% want a combination of both. Meanwhile, about 70% of employers want people back in the office, citing worries about company culture, Neeley said.

Even with in-person arrangements, office spaces will look different, with more open conference rooms, fewer cubicles, and in some cases downsizing, which could lead workers to meet in a coffee shop or get a co-share space for a day, says Susan Tohyama, chief human resources officer at Ceridian.

The move toward co-working spaces is becoming more prevalent among companies big and small. Earlier this year, Spotify announced a flexible-work model which would enable employees to work from anywhere, whether that be from home, any of the company’s global offices, or a co-working space that the company will pay for.

Joining a co-working space is likely a consideration for employees living with distractions at home or at companies that choose to shut down offices, says Stoddard.

The most productive group of workers are the ones who work successfully from anywhere, according to Neeley, and data suggests that employees who can work from anywhere are more satisfied with their work, but bad leadership, inadequate working space, and distractions can negatively affect that.

Offering a budget toward a virtual space could be an alternative to the flashy perks like free food and laundry, but it won’t solve dwindling collaboration, says Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster. “Sure, they may solve a predicament of experiencing loneliness and isolation but it doesn’t reconnect them directly with their team,” she says. “There’s really no substitute for working in the office and connecting with your coworkers.”

Leverage past experience

Decisions about work from home policies should be decided at the upper levels to prevent friction between managers and employees, says Neeley, though another Harvard Business School remote work expert holds a different view, saying teams are best placed to make decisions, not C-suites or individuals.

For companies with stricter rules, workers can also use past experience to negotiate a more accommodating schedule, says Paul Wolfe, senior vice president of human resources at Indeed.

“If you work at a company with more rigid rules, have a conversation with the manager, back it up with data,” says Wolfe. “If you’re a strong performer that’s a good thing to bring up as part of your negotiations.”

Harrington says workers should initiate that conversation and be proactive, and he urges workers to be honest and direct with their managers and treat it like conversation versus an ultimatum.

Some companies may allow remote work but require in-office participation for onboarding or quarterly meetings, an initiative Joblist incorporated from the get-go. The company maintains a San Francisco office yet most workers are remote Harrington said, adding that in-person is good for relationship building and long-term planning. Companies should survey their workers to gauge feedback.

“I don’t think employees should give up anything,” Tohyama says. “I think this is the way of the future.”

Source: Harvard Business School / CNBC
EschCollection | Stone | Getty Images