Workers Quitting Over Return to the Office? Lack of Childcare and Schedule Flexibility Are Two Reasons Why

By: | August 9, 2021

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

If there’s one thing we know about a global pandemic … what we thought we knew, we actually didn’t.

We thought the workplace disruption would be temporary; we initially thought we didn’t need to wear masks; we thought vaccination rates would be higher; and we thought everyone would be clambering to get back to the workplace.

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Returning to the workplace has not been as simple as some CEOs might have imagined. Many Fortune 100 companies have called employees back to the workplace and have been met with strong resistance.

There is a massive white-collar shift occurring.

As employees have pushed back, there has been a walk back of those demands by leadership, and they are allowing more flexibility. We’re now in a much different return to work situation with a labor shortage, and employees are using it to their advantage.

In New York City and San Francisco, only 21% of employees have come back to the office. Cities in Texas, however, have managed to get more people back. In Austin, Dallas and Houston, the return rate is nearly 50%, according to Kastle Systems, an office security company. It monitored the keycard swipes in its 2,500 buildings across the country to get the data.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Vaccines were always the key to getting back to some semblance of normality. The vaccination rate — along with the ambiguity around requiring vaccines and other measures like masks — is complicating many employers’ return to work plans.

Also in the temporary category are enhanced unemployment benefits. There is some evidence that these payments are deterring certain lower-paid service workers from returning to their previous jobs or even sectors.

Enhanced benefits in all states — many have already been eliminated — end in September.

The Service Sector Steps Up Its Benefits

In the service sector, this has caused some across-the-board wage increases.

Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart are just a few companies that have announced increases for hourly employees.

Other companies are enhancing benefits, including health insurance and paid leave.

Still others — including Wal-Mart — have announced plans to make employee schedules more regular and predictable.

There have been many news stories about how restaurants or other traditionally lower-paying business saw their “labor shortage” disappear when they raised pay.

A Lack of Childcare Could Keep Women Out of the Office

Childcare is another concern.

There is a good deal of evidence women in particular left the workforce and are returning in smaller numbers because of the need to care for children and elders.

Even before the pandemic, there was a shortage of quality, affordable childcare, and the closures and shift to online learning brought on by the pandemic have only heightened the challenge.

Will Remote Work Last?

The more critical issue, however, seems to be the desire of many office workers to continue working from home at least part of the time. A year of remote work has inculcated patterns that may be difficult to break.

But it’s deeper than that. This is the shift I was referring to above.

Employees have experienced real gains during the pandemic that they’d like to keep. There is less commuting, with its costs and stress.

Do offsite employees really have the same access to managers — and future managers — as they would if they were in the office?

Clothing, meal and other costs are lower. There are often greater opportunities to spend unstructured time with family and neighbors. And while many employers have reached a different conclusion, surveys indicate that employees — and others — believe they are more productive working remotely.

The result is that only about 28% of U.S. office workers are back at their buildings, according to an index of 10 metro areas compiled by security company Kastle Systems.

Even more dramatic, a significant percentage say they’d quit rather than return to the office full time.

A May survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. Among millennials and Gen Z, that figure was 49%, according to the poll by Morning Consult.

But while the return to work rollout has been slower than anticipated, employers are making plans. And these plans often include adapting to at least some employee desires.

Hybrid Work Arrangements Gain Popularity

For office workers, employer adaptation means continuing the opportunity to work at least some days remote — the “hybrid option.”

It makes sense that employers, especially in very competitive industries, would accommodate employees’ desires in this regard.

These organizations need these talented employees, and much of this work can be done — and done well — somewhere other than a company office. The last year has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach.

That’s not to say the hybrid option does not present challenges. As noted, executives and others do question if it can foster as much productivity, collaboration and innovation as can be achieved when everyone is in the same workplace.

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And over time, employees may have their own questions and concerns. They may miss colleagues and the chance for informal interactions and events. More important, they may come to question if working outside the office impacts career advancement.

Working at home, employees may be left out of formal meetings and informal discussions in which decisions are influenced or made.

Do offsite employees really have the same access to managers — and future managers — as they would if they were in the office? The answers could be enough to make “normal” work attractive again unless there is a concerted effort to equalize the playing field between remote, hybrid and in-office workers.

The pandemic has brought about many changes in the U.S. workplace.

As employees slowly return to work, either full or part-time, employers have a unique opportunity to build on strengths and correct weaknesses, adjust work arrangements, and address compensation and management techniques in ways that could significantly increase employee commitment and satisfaction.

Thoughtful changes that minimize risk and maximize performance will give flexible employers a powerful competitive advantage during this unusual economic recovery. &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]