Back to the Office … or Else?

Leaders have another challenge as they reopen offices: making sure workers don’t feel their careers are at stake if they don’t come in.

Fearing for their health, employees have been worrying for months about having to go back to the office. Now it appears some of them are worried that not going back will stall their careers—or worse.

In yet another challenge for senior executives trying to balance back-to-the-office work plans with employee concerns, some workers say they fear that staying home may keep them out of the loop with business operations—and out of favor with their managers. Indeed, a recent Korn Ferry survey found that nearly four in 10 professionals, 37%, believe they would “face retribution” if they refused to go back to the office when it re-opened. “They want to make sure that they can protect their job and income. Dealing with the pandemic, there are too many unknown variables,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits.

To be sure, in the same survey, 72% of professionals said they were not afraid to go to the office, and nearly three-quarters said they were highly likely or somewhat likely to return. Almost half also said they did not believe their firm would make it mandatory to return to the office when it reopens. But the fear among some about staying home isn’t surprising, experts say. They worry that managers who have come back to branches may look dimly on those who haven’t, or without realizing it, give better assignments to people they see instead of those who are out of sight. An even bigger concern: staffers working remotely may miss out on promotions or find themselves first on furlough lists. 

Either way, it’s the latest example of how senior executives will need to navigate their world in the post-pandemic era. While the transition to remote work was difficult for many firms and workers, some have gotten to like it and don’t want to go back to sit in a cubicle—particularly now, while there is no vaccine available for COVID-19. At the same time, many leaders believe certain roles are done most effectively from a common workplace and believe people thrive better working together face-to-face.

Experts say the only way to deal with the fear of retaliation is to be transparent and consistent, about what roles need to be done from the office and when. “In the absence of communication, that is where people will fill in the blanks themselves,” says Ron Porter, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry's Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. Explaining what the company wants to do about re-staffing offices will put employees more at ease no matter what the plan. Meanwhile, many firms are leaving the decision of whether to return up to the worker. “There has to be consistent messaging,” says Bloom. 

According to most experts, leaders can’t dismiss employees if that worker has a legitimate reason for not returning to the office—such as caring for a sick relative at home or for a personal health reason. Experts say leaders should keep legal counsel handy because federal, state and local regulations are being rewritten even during the pandemic.

But even in cases where an employer has the legal right to compel people to work at the office, the question is should they? Trying to get a business to survive or thrive while also catering to employee needs is one of the toughest quagmires in business right now, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner who specializes in recruiting human resources executives. “If you’re bringing employees back to the office, you have an obligation to look after their health and in turn their family’s health.”

What’s more, in the age of the purpose movement, how far companies push employees back to the office against their will can affect business, since consumers today shift away from products when they sense such treatment. For his part, Mark Royal, a senior director of Korn Ferry Advisory, believes there’s a case to be made for working with both groups and individual employees to determine what’s the best for everyone involved. During the pandemic, employers have discovered that many roles may not need to be done at the office, at least not all the time. Take advantage of the newfound flexibility, Royal says, and then over the longer term, consider working on a more permanent reshaping of the workforce.