WFH 4EVER? Not So Fast
It’s good to be the king.”Mel Brooks, History of the World: Part 1
I am currently sitting in an office that no one else wanted to fill.
Two weeks ago, I started a new job with a company that had a zero-WFH (Work From Home) policy as one of the conditions of hiring. That, to the two other finalists I was up against, was a bridge too far, according to the recruiter who helped me land the position.
By the time I interviewed with the big-wigs, those two candidates had bowed out, each refusing to give up a hybrid WFH-WFO (Work From the Office) life. Right now, they have the freedom to make that choice. I just wouldn’t get too comfortable with it were I them or anyone else thinking WFH is here to stay.
When I became intensely dissatisfied earlier this year with the job I ultimately left, I entered a hiring market bursting with remote opportunities. This was both exciting — I really could work for a company based in Seattle??? — and challenging — I really was going up against applicants from everywhere???
My own WFH experiences had been largely positive. I enjoyed not having to drive the 45 minutes into the office. I loved not having to battle the traffic on the way home. And yes, I was happier working in my Nirvana T-shirt than I am working in dress pants and polo shirts.
That said, I realized on my WFH days, I was generally a tad more irritable in the evenings. Seems as if I actually enjoy interacting with humans outside my own family. On top of that, I definitely had trouble when I was done with my work simply walking out of my home office to the family room and saying, “Hi honey! I’m home!” without that transition time I evidently need in the car, traffic or no traffic.
More to the point, however, I saw how WFH negatively impacted workplace culture and team cohesiveness. What I was trying to do at my old job was nothing short of revolutionary in terms of setting new standards and casting a new vision. Getting that done when so many people were so infrequently in the office was a huge problem. I have yet to see one shred of evidence that WFH is good for anyone but the employee, and that’s going to come into play very soon.
So let’s examine WFH vs. WFO and gaze into the future to see what’s coming next.
The first person I knew who made WFH a thing was my boss at a job I had in 2017. Carrie was extremely bright and talented, but people in general drained her. She did phenomenal work regardless, but that work was even better if she had a day or two each week in which she could WFH.
Back then, Carrie was an outlier, and she paid the price for it. People rolled their eyes behind her back when they heard she was WFH, and it was definitely as if they were putting quote marks around the “W” part, regardless of how effective Carrie was in both quantity and quality wherever she worked.
Suddenly, Carrie’s chosen path wasn’t just a path; It was the path. We all got as comfortable as we could with Zoom life while that “One guy coming from China” tore through our country and the world.
Vaccines and a general slowing of deaths and serious illnesses from COVID have slowly allowed most companies to at least consider RTO (Return To the Office) plans, but what many have found is strong resistance from those who want to, at minimum, have the Carrie option.
Right now, companies absolutely have to listen to that sentiment. The fact is, now is not a great time to be seeking employees who must do things your way. The power is definitely in the hands of the people, given how low the unemployment rate is and how many more job openings there are than job seekers.
But that’s starting to change, and it’s going to put a a crimp in the plans of all of those who of late have invested more in sweatpants than business clothes.
The Boom-Bust Cycle
Our national history with labor is one of cycles. First, there are lots of people and few jobs, so workers are forced to do things the company way. Then, thanks to the skills of those workers (who, historically speaking, were at first taken advantage of by employers who knew they held the power), there are lots of jobs and few people, so companies are forced to do things the way of the worker. The labor movement was the product of this part of the cycle.
COVID simply was the start of a new cycle.
So many people left the workforce or sought better employment that companies were left scrambling to find warm bodies to keep the lights on. This was worsened as companies in essential industries went on massive hiring sprees and gobbled up those looking for better jobs in perhaps safer industries.
Because of that, wages rose. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing, and it shouldn’t be seen as unexpected.
Now, we’re starting a new phase of the cycle. Rising prices on all sorts of things (partially caused by those higher wages) are leading to profitability concerns by companies large and small. Pandemic darlings bloated with workers brought on to meet COVID-related demand are unable to sustain their growth as life returned to something resembling the pre-pandemic norm. Wall Street is a fickle beast, and it doesn’t necessarily react rationally when a company like, say, Pelaton or Zoom return to more modest growth rates than 2020 and 2021.
When stock prices drop, so do employee roster numbers.
We can hardly go a day without hearing of a new company axing four-digit levels of employees. Here’s a quick sampling from the past few days:
- Twitter laid off a third of its recruiters.
- Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg told employees it might need to have “more aggressive goals” to week out “people at the company who shouldn’t be here.”
- The website layoffs.fyi, which tracks layoffs from tech startups, reported today that 331 startups have laid off more than 50,000 employees since the pandemic began.
It’s not just tech companies. Booming inflation has led to rising interest rates, which is starting to put a damper on a white-hot housing market for sellers. In response, real estate company Compass announced a 10% cut to its labor force, while its brother-in-arms Redfin announced its own 8% trimming.
Crypto companies have not only fired waves of employees but rescinded accepted job offers.
Massive rounds of layoffs appear to be on the horizon on Wall Street. Employee rosters at JPMorgan’s investment bank, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley jumped by 13%, 17% and 26% respectively in the past two years. That hiring made sense. Central banks had just dumped trillions of dollars into the economy, and people didn’t go out and spend it all at once. They needed a place to park it. So sought-after employees pushed back when these companies announced RTO plans because they knew they were so in-demand.
Now? There’s a looming crash as that money either has been placed or has dried up, and suddenly these employees are no longer in a position to demand anything. They’ll be lucky to escape with their jobs.
And that provides us with a template for what’s going to come next.
Why We’ll Soon Be RTO
With rising prices on just about everything putting pressure on just about everyone, we’re about to enter the hardest part of this boom-bust cycle.
People are going to start spending less. They’re going to start putting more things on credit and then falling behind on payments. The mortgage payments on the homes they paid way too much for are not going to change but, as companies lay off more and more workers, the homeowners’ ability to send that check every month is going to be challenged. When people can’t afford to pay the mortgage, they’re not going to buy the things that were once seen as necessities that are really just luxuries.
What that means for companies is declining revenue. And what do companies do when their revenue drops to ensure survival? They cut more employees.
At this stage of the cycle, it’s easy to believe everyone loses because many do.
Now, history tells us there’s a boom following the bust. There always has been, and it’s a safe bet to say there will be this time.
But not before there’s a lot of pain.
And that puts the power back in the hands of the employer. If you’re out of a job and your mortgage payment is due, you’re not in a good position to bargain some WFH days each week. There are 10 people waiting in the lobby who’d much rather the job than the flexibility.
It would be different if there was demonstrable evidence that WFH improved business profitability. There’s not. There is evidence that it improves quality of life and things like mental health, which should matter more but, in a capitalistic society (and, historically, in any type of economy), it doesn’t.
So barring another major pandemic, we’ll all dust off our work clothes, get up early, push through the back-again traffic problems and make it to our desks on time for another day in the office. We won’t have much of a choice.
Yes, there will be outliers who use their WFH policy as a recruiting tool. But where WFO jobs will have 10 applicants for every job, the WFH companies will have 100 applicants for every job. That doesn’t mean you won’t land one of them. It just means it’s a lot less likely you’ll land one of them.
To Wrap It Up …
This isn’t to say that WFH is a bad thing. What was good and right for Carrie is good and right for many of us. WFH flexibility is a grand idea when it comes to many of our work/life balance issues.
It’s just not a realistic thing when workers are in no position to push for it.
And that time is coming.
John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 226-5852.
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