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Opinion: What CEOs are missing by trying to get workers back to the office

Opinion by Terri Gerstein

(CNN) — There’s been a surge of labor action in the past year, with high-profile strikes and threatened strikes among Hollywood writers and actors, Starbucks baristas, truck drivers, auto workers and more. Workers are pushing back in other ways, too: Many are trading up for better jobs, while others (like some women with caregiving responsibilities and some older workers) are simply leaving the workforce. Clearly, there’s a widespread desire for more voice and better treatment on the job.

In the midst of this rising thrum of worker activism, what are many of America’s business leaders doing? In high-profile corporations like Amazon and Goldman Sachs, they’re demanding that workers get back to their desks. Leaders of multiple massive corporations, many in tech and finance, are emphasizing that they’re getting tough about return-to-office this time: Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told workers that if they didn’t get on board, they should consider working elsewhere, and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon in July said he understood why people didn’t want to commute an hour and a half each day, but it ”doesn’t mean they have to have a job here either.”

There’s long been a great disparity of power between employers and workers, and this year’s activism, combined with the tight labor market, suggests that the imbalance has shifted at least somewhat. But some employers don’t seem to understand that things are changing. The desire to have employees planted in their office chairs every day perhaps stems from a tired, unconstructive desire for things to be the way they were and a desire for control.

While some jobs, by definition, must be done in person — like nurses or bus drivers or farmworkers — that’s not the case for many traditional office jobs. Countless people have effectively worked from home for more than three years.

We all know by now how working from home benefits many workers: the ability to manage caregiving responsibilities, avoid considerable commuting time and expenses and achieve greater work-life balance. Plus, there are environmental and traffic-reducing benefits to society as a whole.

But there are benefits for employers, too: A shrunken office footprint reduces real estate, heating and cooling costs. Work-from-home lessens spread of illness in the workplace, lowering absenteeism. It also allows companies to draw upon a broader pool of applicants, including people with disabilities, people with child or elder care responsibilities (disproportionately women, alas), people who are neurodivergent and those living in more geographically remote areas outside of metropolitan regions.

Having a diverse workforce is important not just for ideological reasons; it also enables access to better qualified workers. How can companies exclude a whole chunk of the population and believe they’re hiring the very best? Perhaps most compelling to employers: Offering flexibility will provide a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent.

The big challenge of work-from-home for employers is, of course, how to ensure that people are actually doing their jobs. But this is true regardless of where employees work: Being present on site doesn’t mean that high-quality work is happening; it just means that a person is … present on site. There are workers who excel in the office or at home, those who underperform in either place and lots of people in between. Helping workers be their most productive and effective requires active, supportive management with a focus on work product and results, not just face time.

To be sure, there is value in colleagues coming together and being physically in the same place. But forcing people into the office every day five days a week is not the only way to build a team, or to enable unexpected insights or cross-pollination. This is where employers can actually do some innovative and collaborative thinking: They can involve workers directly in conversations about where work will happen, and of course, where there’s a union, they must bargain over these questions. Many employees appreciate the option of working from home, but also would like to be in the office sometimes. Workers themselves are in many cases the most able to assess what kind of new setup could be a win-win for them and their employer. To figure out a path forward, executives should do more than simply talking with other executives.

Rather than lapsing into default mode, businesses should be intentional about when, why and how workers will be back in the office. In some cases, the best solution might be a hybrid schedule with limited fixed days in the office. In other cases, the answer could be one week a month on site, or group retreats with specific goals or some other configuration. It’s an opportunity to innovate.

Some employers say they’re embracing flexibility in various ways. For example, J.M. Smucker is requiring workers to come to the office during certain core weeks each year. As business consultant Gleb Tsipursky recently wrote in Fortune, employers can also take a differentiated approach based on factors like someone’s actual job or tenure at the company.

Businesses that demand an all-out full-time return to the office no matter what are failing to meet the moment and engaging in throwback thinking. They may be waiting it out: As the economy cools and the labor market becomes less tight, will workers still enjoy the same ability they’ve had of late to move to a company with better conditions? Will currently flexible companies roll back their promises and demand a return to the office?

The answer to those questions is still uncertain. But even though we’ve seen the end of what some have called a “hot labor summer,” strict return-to-office mandates are likely to be one more element contributing to ongoing activism among America’s working people.

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