Workers Unite

By  |  July 2, 2021, 1:38 PM  |  Techonomy Exclusive


Now that they’ve tasted the sweet cheese of working from home, the rat race has less appeal.

When you walk (or run) to catch the subway in NYC, look up. There’s a thoroughly depressing poem written on the beams of the gloomy, dark tunnel between the Port Authority and Times Square at 42nd St. It’s called the “Commuter’s Lament”:

Overslept,
so tired,
if late, get fired.
Why bother?
Why the pain?
Just go home,
do it again(by Norman Colp)

For my generation the words of the poem emblemize what we had do to stay in the game. For a new generation of workers, especially millennials and Gen Z, the post-pandemic era offers a reality check on the meaning of life. Do I want to be spending my time in the bowels of the transportation system, spending hours a day in an office I never much cared for in the first place? Or would I rather be somewhere where I can work hard, play hard, and do it near or in my home?

And it’s got the makings of a utopian moment, though many question whether it’s dystopian in disguise. The stakes are high. Can you get the next generation of talent to buy into office-life? Or can you change your office structure to accommodate the demands of a remote workforce?

For workers, the pandemic forced a great re-thinking. It gave many a proof point showing it was possible to work from anywhere and still get things done. Perspectives have changed, too. Workers rediscovered families they’d often only see in the late evening hours, they had time to find passions for things other than work, and commute time seemed like unnecessary (and uncompensated) time.

The headlines are everywhere. “Quitting is having a moment”, according to CNN. “Workplace leaders are predicting a mass exodus in early 2021” with a survey saying that 1 in 4 workers are considering quitting their jobs.

What have employers done to quell the insurrection? In the short term, the response from employers has often been an empathetic, if underwhelming nod. Perks like closing shop for a week to let employees refuel and offering summer camps for their kids are two common lures. Bumble, the dating app took a collective company week off. LinkedIn shut down for a week in April. Last summer, Canadian e-commerce company Shopify instituted “Rest & Refuel Fridays” globally and will do the same this year. Fidelity is granting U.S. full-time and part-time employees five additional paid “relief days” for unexpected events, as well as elder- and child-care coordinators to help find and vet caregivers or tutors.

Other companies are planning bonding/team building activities. Kickstarter just launched a four day work week. None of these go particularly far into what Chris Herd, CEO of Firstbase, a remote working consultancy, talks about as a reprioritization where it’s “Life First. Work Second.” Battle lines are being drawn. Twitter and Microsoft are being pretty liberal about working from home. While JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Google are expecting workers to return momentarily. Making the headlines almost daily, Jamie Dimon told employees that the company will make it mandatory for all employees to disclose their COVID-19 vaccination status by June 30, and that employees should return to the office by July 6. The US Government has adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” about vaccinations which does not inspire confidence in a return to the office. More novel solutions include paying a lower salary to those who want to be able to work remotely. Another is to dangle the “you’re less likely to be considered for promotion when you’re OOO forever.”

Scholars are having a prediction field day. Is this a transformational moment in the history of work or is work from home a flash trend?  “Employers,” says David Lewis, CEO of Operations, Inc, an HR consultancy, “need to recognize that they are playing on a moving field. They need to think hard about how to justify that despite being born of necessity, work-from-home worked for 16 months.” At the same time, employers are scurrying to comply with new health rules, changing vaccination compliance rules, new office layouts, and new workflows. It’s easy to imagine they might feel a loss of control. (It’s expensive and confounding.)

It’s a critical time to both create and articulate a clear strategy, but also keep it flexible enough to meet a very fluid situation. “Leaders hate being told that it’s going to take time and that they need to be patient,” says Lewis. Their nature is to be decisive. The best approach, he believes, is to remain open.

Employers have some power in this because they can now fill positions with great talent from all over the globe. “What we’re telling our clients now,” says Lewis, “is not to let the negotiations or the decision-making happen on a disseminated basis. Keep it centralized, communicate it consistently, and tell employees it’s a fluid situation that will be evaluated regularly.”

Is that enough of a bandaid stave off the worker exodus? Only time will tell.

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