‘Tug of war’ as employers try to get their workers back in the office

Employees can expect a bigger push from their bosses to get back to the office in 2023, human resources experts told The New Daily.

But employees now have more bargaining power than they did.

Three years after COVID-19 arrived, many organisations have not resumed pre-pandemic working arrangements.

In many states, 2020 and 2021 saw workers exclusively work remotely, due to restrictions. But by 2022 working arrangements were largely determined by each company.

Some drove a hard bargain, saying employees had to return to the office for the full working week.

Others had more nuanced, flexible guidelines, with employees free to come and go as they pleased.

And some companies fell more in the middle, with a set amount of contact days, with all other days still remote.

Under control

After several years of flexibility, Associate Professor of Management at Melbourne Business School Jennifer Overbeck said she expected more employers to push for more in-office days throughout the year.

As some employers embraced the workplace changes that COVID had brought, other organisations pushed their staff to get back under the same roof.

The most famous example, perhaps, would be Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s email to his staff, in which he said that if they did not show, he would assume they had resigned.

There will likely be a “strong trend” toward employers affirming their power over employees over the next 12 months, she said.

“I do think there’s going to be a strong trend, at least in part of the business world toward ‘let’s bring people much more under our control and let’s tell them what to do’, rather than trying to accommodate them,” she said.

Losing interest?

There are signs that employers are losing interest in remote working and virtual access for employees.

On Wednesday, virtual conferencing platform Zoom announced it would retrench 15 per cent of its workforce in cost-cutting measures.

In a note to staff, CEO Eric Yuan said the company would be saying goodbye to about 1300 staff.

“We didn’t take as much time as we should have to thoroughly analyse our teams or assess if we were growing sustainably, toward the highest priorities,” he said.

Zoom peaked in late 2020 when the company’s value hit $US150 billion ($216 billion).

Revenue continued to grow in 2021, but in 2022 revenue slowed to single digits, as most of the world emerged from COVID lockdowns.

Zoom will sack around 1300 employees. Photo: Getty


Employers might want to return to pre-pandemic arrangements, but one HR expert said they will likely face resistance from prospective employees.

“Really, it’s a tug of war between the employer and employee, but it has to be balanced. It has got to work for both parties. Across COVID, it was heavily weighted towards the employee given the lockdown restrictions,” Options Consulting Group human resources consultant Rupert Condon said.

“But coming out of that, employers are well and truly in their rights to manage … and then evaluate whether those KPIs are being adhered to and succeeded with the work from home or hybrid model. So it’s a balance.”

Mr Condon said employers are used to having their way in these circumstances, but employees currently hold a great deal of bargaining power.

“What’s happening is the marketplace is chasing their tail at the moment because … they’ve laid off too many people because they weren’t sure where the pandemic was going. And now there’s a lot of backfill occurring,” he said.

Millennial power

Years of remote working has also shifted employees’ expectations, and they are no longer interested in working themselves to the bone.

This is also partly due to a “generational shift”, says Professor Overbeck, with millennials slowly overtaking baby boomers as the largest generation in Australia’s workforce.

“Younger people, I think, are just kind of not ready to sell their existence to a company or a school for just a salary,” she said.

“They’re really looking to be in a two-way conversation and to have their own needs met.”

Turning point

Melbourne Business School professor of organisational behaviour, Isabel Metz, said the “chips will eventually fall” in employers’ favour.

The main reason, she said, is that remote work cannot replace the important social rewards reaped from an in-office experience.

“Social rewards motivate people and those are the rewards that good management work with,” Professor Metz said.

“Good managers use [social rewards] to motivate their teams. So that … it requires work in person. And that’s why I envisage that there will always be the element of in-person work. Nothing really replaces a good relationship, face to face.”

remote work

HR experts say companies will likely revert to pre-pandemic arrangements. Photo: Getty


Many employers are trying to sweeten the deal in an effort to attract prospective employees.

In return for coming into the office, many are offering additional days of leave like wellness days and a day off on your birthday.

Other employers also offer free gym memberships “as a bit of a cherry on top”, Mr Condon said.

And these finishing touches are gradually becoming the new standard.

“Depending on the nature of the work, the nature of the candidate, [offers are] coming a lot more tailored to the candidate or employee,” Mr Condon said.

Professor Overbeck said these bonuses are all about adding to employees’ quality of life.

“Working from home is a quality-of-life issue. So I think tackling things that make a higher quality of life from coming to the office, that’s a pretty rational way to approach trying to bring people in.”

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