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It’s time to call a truce in the war on remote working

TikTok’s warning shot to remote workers is the latest move in the escalating battle to get people back to the office. But taking a tougher stance is unlikely to succeed
Its Time To Call A Truce On The Remote Work War

Move closer to the office or lose your job! This is the latest sabre-rattling cry from bosses as the war on working from home ramps up. 

According to internal messages from TikTok, first seen by The Information, the social media site has informed its US staff whose home addresses aren’t in the vicinity of their office, that they could face disciplinary action, including being sacked, if they don’t relocate. TikTok says that this request is for compliance reasons, adding that employees were first warned about the changes in June last year.

But it is yet another sign of the difficulties, both legally and culturally, that companies face as they try to work out how to get the best from their staff. TikTok’s work-from-home policy remains the same – a minimum of two days in the office and gentle encouragement to come in for three. But, once again, the emphasis is on the importance of in-person work.

Putting the work-from-home genie back in its bottle is no simple task 

TikTok is not alone in summoning staff back to the office. Earlier this month, the returning Disney CEO Bob Iger told its hybrid workers that Monday to Thursday would now be “in-person workdays”. JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon has regularly waded into the debate, most recently saying that the option to work from home “is not an employee choice”.

Similarly, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who was once a proponent of remote working, has swiftly changed his mind after claiming that newer hires had lower productivity. BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink was more forthright in his assessment when he told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “remote working has not worked”

Underlining this shift in narrative is the fact that 11.1% of UK job openings are currently advertised as fully remote, down from 15.6% in January 2022, according to LinkedIn. This represents the lowest figure since it began collecting such data in September 2021. 

Employees are losing bargaining power 

This change in sentiment can be linked to the economic downturn. A looming recession is putting pressure on CEOs to boost productivity, while a cooling labour market and a raft of high-profile mass layoffs have emboldened business leaders to seize the initiative and take control of the work-from-home debate. 

Sensing that the tides are shifting back in their favour, many companies are using it as an opportunity to persuade people to return to the office, with the threat of an unstable jobs market increasing the risk for those who don’t want to comply.

But putting the work-from-home genie back in its bottle is no simple task – just ask Apple CEO Tim Cook. The tech firm has been in a tug of war with staff over remote working, with its return-to-the-office mandates repeatedly rebuffed by employees.

But while many bosses are approaching the issue with an ‘us versus them’ mentality, the division between bosses and staff is perhaps less stark than the headlines would have us believe. The gap between the number of work-from-home days that employees would like and the number of office-based days that employers prefer has been narrowing since January 2021, according to surveys from WFH Research. This month’s results show that workers desire 2.8 days working from home, while employers are looking for an average of 2.3.

A solution that works for both parties

The data shows that there’s room for a middle ground that suits both parties. Working together on a solution is likely to produce better results than mandates, while warnings from the likes of TikTok and Apple have done little but create friction with staff.

The majority of businesses in the UK may have stumbled across the preferred solution, with analysis of anonymised phone data suggesting that Tuesdays to Thursdays are the preferred days for people to commute in. Whether this is a result of employer demands or staff preferences is harder to determine. 

Mandates and warnings have done little but create friction with staff

Employers must also consider the benefits that remote working can bring to their businesses. When working from home was enforced across the board during the height of the pandemic in 2020, sickness absence fell to a record low of 1.8%, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. For bosses looking for a productivity boost, remote working appears to offer a free means to reduce absenteeism.

Similarly, opening up job opportunities to remote workers allows businesses to hire from outside the main metropolitan areas, where the cost of living and expected salaries tend to be higher. And, with demand for remote jobs remaining high (21.1% of all job applications on LinkedIn in November 2022 were for roles that offered remote work), it’s still a key differentiator for businesses when competing for talent. 

Recent changes to UK employment law to allow employees to request flexible working arrangements from their first day on the job underscore the fact that this change in the way we work is here to stay. Rather than trying to turn back the clock, CEOs should call an armistice on their war on remote work and find a solution that suits both parties. Doing so may be easier than they think.