The Great Resistance: Getting employees back to the office
After more than two years of remote and hybrid working, many employees are refusing to return to the office.
More than 40 percent of managers are ignoring employees refusing to come in when requested.
Employees frustrated by a bad review from the boss or unhappy with their schedule are having increasing luck landing a new job – sometimes within a single day of looking.
Managers can implement some rather easy and efficient policies to restore a productive and vibrant in-office work culture.
The pandemic has played plenty of tricks on the workplace.
First came the Great Transformation of 2020, with the closure of offices and cubicles and the conversion of spare bedrooms, closets, and kitchen tables into work-from-home stations. A year later came the Great Resignation, as various combinations of low pay, increased personal responsibilities, and better jobs elsewhere inspired more than 47 million Americans to quit their jobs.
Today, businesses are facing the Great Resistance. After more than two years of remote working, flexible scheduling, and zero commute time, many workers are refusing to head back to the office.
I have been talking to dozens of CEOs and managers every week since the pandemic began about the conditions in their firms. Back in 2020 the discussions focused on whether working from home would last, with deep skepticism it would persist beyond the end of the year.
By 2021, the theme had shifted to how many days to offer in a post-pandemic hybrid set-up. This year, managers are lamenting the challenges of getting employees back into the office. Some firms like Grubhub and Qualcom have resorted to free food and wine tastings; others like Google have hired performers like Lizzo to entice workers in; some, including Tesla, have resorted to threatening to dismiss employees who don’t show up.
Resistance isn’t so futile
Looking at our national U.S. data, however, we see clear evidence for a Great Resistance. I run a monthly survey1 of 5,000 working Americans with Jose Barrero, of Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México; and Steve Davis, of the University of Chicago, which asked in May 2022 about employees’ adherence to their firms’ demands to return to the office.
Almost 20 percent of employees that can WFH — typically professional and managerial employees — were not coming into the office as many days as their employer requested. In Figure 1 we break this down by the number of days their employers asked them to come in, and we see that firms pushing for a full five-day return have a shockingly low take-up rate of 48 percent.
Figure 1: Last week, did you come into the business premises as many days as your employer wanted?
This means in firms pushing for a full return that a typical employee is ignoring their manager.
Firms asking for four days or fewer are faring better, with take-up rates of 80 percent and higher. But while that rate may sound promising, it means that the typical team of seven or eight people will find one or two members working from home on any given day.
This makes full team meetings without Zoom impossible. In discussions with employees, one of the major complaints I hear is having to travel to the office to spend the day there shouting at their laptop to connect with co-workers still at home. So while an 80 percent compliance rate sounds high, it is often not enough to make working from work the connected experience it was pre-pandemic.
So what are managers doing about this Great Resistance?
Figure 2 shows the most common response is nothing. More than 40 percent of managers are ignoring employees refusing to come in as many days as requested. Many of them have quietly confided to me if their employees are getting their jobs done, they are not enforcing aggressive return-to-the-office policies. Indeed, many managers themselves do not even support these policies, arguing they can work effectively coming in two or three days a week, ignoring the subversion when employees work extra days from home. This passive resistance to the full office return is surprisingly common.
Figure 2: How has your employer responded to employees who come in fewer days than requested?
The remaining 60 percent are adopting a mix of policies ranging from verbal warnings and negative performance reviews to pay cuts and even termination.
Take this job and shove it
This highlights the big challenge of enforcing tough return-to-office policies. If employees are getting their jobs done — and we know from two years of pandemic they mostly are given record firm profits and growth rate — then it is hard to punish them for not coming in enough days. But if managers don’t punish them, they risk appearing weak by failing to enforce company policy.
Making this harder for managers is the fact that working from home can make changing jobs so much easier. You can search for jobs and interview discreetly from the comfort of your own home. Searching and interviewing while working at the office can be hard, with several hours away under some dubious excuse. Not surprisingly, almost half of survey responders in April 2020 said it was easier to search for a new job from home (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Has working from home made it easier or harder to interview for a prospective new job?
So any managers taking a tough line on employees that fail to return for sufficient days risk a rash of quits. Indeed, some managers have raised fears of “impulse quits.” Employees who get frustrated with a bad performance review or a dressing-down from their managers rapidly search for a job, interview online, and accept a new job within a couple of days. This is happening even within the day, particularly in hot markets like the tech industry. It’s not unheard of for someone to search the help wanteds in the morning, take an interview in the afternoon, and accept an offer by the close of business.
Take my advice
So what to do? My advice is to follow a simple two-step process. First, managers should figure out how many days their team needs to be in the office. Count the hours per week of activities that are best in person, like group discussions, mentoring events, training, parties, and client meetings.
Add up these hours and round up to the nearest day. For example, 18 hours of in-person work would translate to three in-office days. Second, pick common “anchor days” for these days and have employees all come in for them and work from home on the other days. For many teams this will likely mean two or three days a week in the office, probably Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday given how popular Monday and Friday are for working from home.
These become social, vibrant, and lively days at work. The home days become time for deep, solitary work that doesn’t rely on collaboration. And if everyone is aligned on these reasonable steps, returning to the office should be a path of hardly any resistance.
Nicholas Bloom is a SIEPR senior fellow and the Eberle Professor in Stanford’s Department of Economics. His research focuses on management practices and uncertainty.