Why Employers Forcing a Return to Office is Leading to More Worker Power and Unionization
Demanding that employees return to the office could backfire against employers in the long run by spurring increases in labor union organizing. Here's why.
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Angry and dismayed Amazon employees are pushing back against the recently-announced return to office policy by the Amazon leadership. Amazon's policy joins other high-profile companies such as Disney, Starbucks, Tesla, Google, and others that are forcing employees back to the office.
Some are claiming they need to do so for the sake of productivity. For example, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, claimed that those working remotely only "pretend to work" and are "phoning it in." Others say you need to be in the office to innovate: Disney's CEO Bob Iger demanded the return to the office because "nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together."
However, in reality, extensive research shows remote workers are more productive than those in the office, not less. And you get more ideas and more novel ideas through techniques for innovation and creativity that are adapted to remote work.
So what explains the situation? As a globally-known expert in the field of hybrid and remote work, I have seen firsthand how working remotely, whether part of the week or full-time, enables worker power through facilitating autonomy, decentralizing power and preventing micromanagement. Unfortunately, too many old-school managers like Iger and Musk prefer a rigid, top-down power structure; indeed, Elon Musk is well-known as an extreme micromanager.
Related: You Should Let Your Team Decide Their Approach to Hybrid Work. A Behavioral Economist Explains Why and How You Should Do It.
Such an authoritarian approach is well-suited to the assembly line model of the early 20th century, but not well-suited for a modern knowledge economy. That's why we're seeing employees use worker power to fight against these authoritarian mandates, resulting in empowered labor unions.
It's important to recognize that this turn to worker power is happening in the context of massive layoffs by tech companies, which are becoming less willing to offer perks like remote work to their workforce. In fact, there's evidence that some companies such as Twitter are using return-to-office mandates to get workers to quit voluntarily, to avoid paying severance. Employers are increasingly getting the upper hand, as workers who feel anxious about the economy are reluctant to make demands for more remote work. However, such strategies may well backfire against employers in the long term if they spur increases in labor union organizing; even though individual employees might be anxious about their jobs, together they can press their case, especially given an unemployment rate of 3.4%, the lowest in over 50 years. And even tech workers are finding new jobs in three months or so, pointing to the strength of the labor market despite some shift toward employer power.
Three case studies of worker power and the return to office
YouTube contractors in Texas went on strike in protest of rules requiring such workers to report to the office. The workers, who are technically employed by Cognizant, were notified of the Feb. 6 return-to-office date in November. The vast majority of the contractors were hired during the pandemic and have always worked remotely. Workers say their pay, which starts at around $19 per hour, isn't enough to cover the costs of relocating to and living in Austin. The workers' strike came after they filed a prior month for union recognition, leading some to conclude the move was being made in retaliation. The workers are also seeking to have Google and Cognizant recognized as joint employers.
The New Mexico State Personnel Office ordered state employees working remotely to return to in-person work at the start of the new year. Many voiced their frustrations against the order, citing issues with commute, health, poor in-person work conditions, lack of child care, and low pay, among other things. State workers rallied against the state's return-to-office order at the roundhouse in Santa Fe. Dan Secrist, president of CWA Local 7076, said the state's return-to-office mandate has worsened problems it was intended to solve while creating new ones.
The Canadian Federal government ordered public service employees to return to the office up to three days per week. A recent survey of nearly 14,000 public service workers revealed close to 75% of government employees would rather work from home. Marc Brière serves as the national president for the Union of Taxation Employees, which represents some 37,000 workers with the Canada Revenue Agency. He says it is unnecessary for the majority of employees to return to the office.
Tensions between employers and workers over the return to office
These cases illustrate the increasing tension between employers and workers, particularly over the return to the office. The pandemic has accelerated the trend toward remote work, and workers are now resisting the idea of returning to the office. Many workers have become accustomed to the flexibility and freedom that come with remote work, and employers who refuse to allow it are facing backlash.
Employers are forcing their employees back to the office to impose control over workers, but they are failing to recognize that remote work enables worker power. In fact, remote work is empowering workers by giving them more control over their lives and work. With remote work, workers can choose where and when to work, which gives them more control over their schedules and their work-life balance.
Employers who are forcing their employees back to the office are trying to reassert control over their workers, but they are finding that it is backfiring. Workers are pushing back against these efforts, and many are joining unions to protect their rights and interests. Employers who refuse to recognize this trend risk alienating their workers and facing the consequences.
Cognitive biases in the return to office increases worker power
The drive to return employees to the office to regain control over employees is a prime example of how cognitive biases can lead to poor decision-making. Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that we use to process information quickly and efficiently. They can lead us to make decisions that are not based on facts or rational thought, but on our personal beliefs, emotions and past experiences. In the context of the return to the office, employers are making decisions that are based on cognitive biases that are leading them to overlook the dangers of their actions.
One of the most common cognitive biases at play in this context is confirmation bias. This is the tendency to seek out and interpret information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or biases. Employers who are determined to bring their employees back to the office are more likely to seek out information that supports this decision while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts it. This can lead them to make decisions that are not in the best interests of their organizations by harming relations with employees, leading both to challenges with retention and resistance by employees through worker power.
Another cognitive bias that is prevalent in this context is the status quo bias. This is the tendency to prefer things to stay the way they are, rather than change. Employers who are used to having their employees work in the office may be resistant to change, even if remote work has proven to be effective and beneficial for their employees. They may be more inclined to return to the office simply because it is the way things have always been done, rather than because it is the best decision for their employees or their organization.
The dangers of cognitive biases in this context are significant. By ignoring the benefits of remote work and forcing their employees back to the office, employers risk alienating their workers, and they may also be creating a situation where workers are more likely to unionize. This is because when employees feel that their needs are not being met, they are more likely to band together and form a union to protect their interests.
It is time for employers to recognize the value of remote work and to work with their employees to create hybrid or remote work arrangements that meet the needs of both parties. Employers who do so will enjoy a happier and more productive workforce, while those who refuse to adapt risk falling behind in a rapidly changing world.
Remote work enables worker power, and employers who recognize this fact will be better positioned to succeed in the years ahead. As a manager, it is important to listen to your employees and to work with them to create the best possible work environment for all. By doing so, you can create a strong and vibrant workplace culture that will help you succeed in the long run.