‘Zooming’ It In?

Leaders are voicing their skepticism of remote work. But is it too late to go back to the way it was?

He’s talented, that’s for sure. He’d certainly help the team. But he lacks hustle.

This isn’t a scouting report for some top athletic recruit. It’s the opinion of a growing group of business leaders about people who want to work from home.

Emboldened by the rapid pace of vaccinations and the ability to once again be together without masks, a small but growing number of business leaders aren’t shying away from airing their true feelings about remote work—and it’s clear they’re skeptical of whether it produces the best results. Roughly 84% of CEOs in a recent survey say they want employees back in the office this year, for instance. One CEO described people who want to work from home as less engaged than those who come to the office, while another leader labeled remote work as inferior to the office “for those who want to hustle.”

The push to return people to the office—which in many ways is being led by the financial services firms that started bringing people back months ago—underscores the sense of unease leaders feel about maintaining control with a dispersed workforce, says Chad Astmann, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global cohead of investment management. “Many leaders are not ready or trained for this paradigm shift,” he says of the move to remote work; looking at work through the lens of the office or the home is like “using a blunt instrument when a surgical tool is needed.”

Business leaders have always been worried about remote work succeeding, of course. Experts point out that during the height of the pandemic lockdowns, many said productivity hadn’t suffered. Part of the change of heart for some may be tied to the fact that a lot of the C-suite returned to offices or will soon. “CEOs are clearly on a different page than most workers,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. He says leaders need to be very careful about their change of tune. “They don’t want to appear to be betraying commitments made over the last year,” he says.

To be sure, the same survey that showed 84% of CEOs want people back in the office also found that only 10% of employees want to go back full-time. One-third of people in another recent survey said they would turn down an offer for an in-office job. Kaplan says the message from workers that they want either a remote-first or hybrid work schedule is getting through to CHROs, if not CEOs. He says CHROs who work for companies that are open to flexible scheduling are using it as a competitive advantage in recruiting and retention. “A meaningful number of people will choose to work for a company that offers a flexible arrangement over one that doesn’t,” he says.

Still, experts caution there will be companies that force the issue of returning to the office, at least for some positions. In fact, many companies have been going through positions one by one, categorizing them as in-office, hybrid, or fully remote—the idea being that in the short term, they can collect data from managers and talent about what setups work best for each position and then make longer-term decisions. “It isn’t about the future of work, it’s about the immediate future,” says Linda Hyman, executive vice president of global human resources for Korn Ferry. “Let’s take the next step in getting back to work and then figure out what’s best longer term.”