These Workers Were the Bosses’ Favourites. Now They Feel Jilted. | Kanebridge News
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These Workers Were the Bosses’ Favourites. Now They Feel Jilted.

Fri, Sep 2, 2022 9:42amGrey Clock 4 min
What’s waiting for people heading back to the office after Labor Day? Jealous looks from the under appreciated colleagues who returned long ago.

The prodigal son of biblical lore gets a ring, new sandals and a feast—with fatted calf!—to celebrate his return. For workers just now going back to offices, a more contemporary welcome can include company swag, cold brew on tap and cash bonuses.

One thing is the same: the jealous looks from peers who consider themselves more devoted and deserving.

Like the young man in the parable, whose brother loyally stays on the family farm and complains that he’s under appreciated, many resuming in-person work now have colleagues who remained on site throughout the pandemic or came back a long time ago. And those colleagues are a little annoyed by the fanfare.

“Where’s the acknowledgment?” says Cherokee Lindsay, a banker in New York who staffed a bricks-and-mortar branch in the early months of the pandemic while much of the finance sector worked from home.

Mx. Lindsay, who uses a gender-neutral honorific and pronoun, recalls talking to customers through glass doors when the branch was closed to the public, sometimes helping people who had always banked in person learn to use a mobile app.

Mx. Lindsay moved to a corporate job within the same company in time to join colleagues returning to a gleaming new office building and a food-filled, employee-appreciation event this summer.

Having been in both camps—the one that stuck around during Covid and the one that came back recently—they say the business world is celebrating people who return to their desks but largely taking for granted those who never left.

“I do get upset” about the imbalance, Mx. Lindsay says.

Resentments could fester as companies toast (often literally, with boozy reunions) another round of office returns this month. Comcast, Apple and Peloton are among firms pushing to significantly boost head counts in offices after Labor Day.

“Tension is a real risk with this group,” says Kristie Rogers, an associate professor of management at Marquette University. “If we’re not paying attention to those who have been around a while, making sure that their efforts were valued and continue to be valued, there could be some division that undermines the purpose of bringing people back in the first place.”

She adds workers who believe their in-person contributions are not sufficiently rewarded may quit or “quiet quit,” staying in a job but doing only the bare minimum.

Keeping everyone satisfied is especially difficult since many workers feel empowered to resist office callbacks and expect new perks in exchange for showing up. Those who’ve long been working in person can hardly be blamed for resenting the incentives—why weren’t they offered sooner?—even though the benefits are available to all.

“I sit on several CEO councils, and the No. 1 thing we talk about is the labour shortage,” says Bart Valdez, who leads Cincinnati-based Ingenovis Health, a medical staffing firm. “The second thing we talk about is: What are you doing to get your employees to stay engaged, stay working and at the office? It’s really a challenge.”

This from a Navy veteran who was a stickler for office attendance before the pandemic, insisting that his 1,500 employees with desk jobs show up just like his company’s 10,000 front-line medical workers. He was a self-described, old-school boss in Brooks Brothers suits and wingtips.

These days he’s sporting polos and thinking up ways to woo back his office staff. So far, he’s upgraded outposts in several cities with gyms and regular visits from taco trucks.

I told him he’s gone soft.

“Oh, my gosh, I know!” he said. “My old drilling instructor would be killing me right now.”

He says he’s been careful not to overlook his in-person stalwarts while showering perks on those who are only now coming back—and part-time in many cases. Ingenovis recently rolled out gym memberships and career development services for its medical workers but, alas, no tacos.

One of the company’s traveling nurses, Grover Street, told me healthcare professionals are split within their own ranks. Some stayed at the bedside throughout the pandemic. Mr. Street, for instance, says he took short-term assignments in one Covid hot spot after another, even though his wife was immunocompromised while battling breast cancer.

Lots of others shifted to telemedicine or changed careers to join the millions working from home.

Now, as more workers return to hospitals, some can command five-figure signing bonuses in places where there are staffing shortages. While Mr. Street says he welcomes these prodigals because his profession badly needs reinforcements, not everyone is so gracious.

“There are doctors and nurses that are sour,” he says. “They have some resentment at people abandoning us and then coming back—you know, running from trouble and then saying, ‘Hey, now that it’s taken care of, we’re gonna come back and help you guys out.’”

Seeking spiritual guidance for the embittered, I called Bob Massie, the rare business consultant who in a previous career was an Episcopal minister. He contends the prodigal-son fable is really about the protagonist’s long-suffering brother, and the relevant question for workers who’ve stuck it out in person is this:

“How are you going to react when good things happen to other people?”

Emma McCulloch says she’s glad to see colleagues trickle back to the tech company where she works in California, even though their recent arrivals have been marked by luncheons, goody bags and team-building scavenger hunts that were missing when she volunteered to help reopen the office early this year. She says the company didn’t want to pressure people, and she reasons that fun and games for the first returners would have signalled a preference for in-person work.

Still, Ms. McCulloch hopes companies like hers will remember the harder-to-measure contributions of people who returned to the office early. While those who worked from home longer posted big productivity numbers, free of commute times and distracting conversations, she and her office colleagues were mentoring interns and building camaraderie over coffee.

She’s not looking for a feast in her honour, but “I think you have to look at productivity in a different way,” she says.


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What’s still keeping American workers out of the office?

At a time when restaurants, planes and concert arenas are packed to the rafters, office buildings remain half full. Thinly populated cubicles and hallways are straining downtown economies and, bosses say, fragmenting corporate cultures as workers lose a sense of engagement.

Yet workers say high costs, caregiving duties, long commutes and days still scheduled full of Zooms are keeping them at home at least part of the time, along with a lingering sense that they’re able to do their jobs competently from anywhere. More than a dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they can’t envision returning to a five-day office routine, even if they’re missing career development or winding up on the company layoff list.

Managers say they will renew the push to get employees back into offices later this year. The share of companies planning to keep office attendance voluntary, rather than mandatory, is dropping, according to a survey released in May of more than 200 corporate real-estate executives conducted by property-services firm CBRE, one of the largest managers of U.S. office space.

A battle of wills could be ahead. The gap between what employees and bosses want remains wide, with bosses expecting in-person collaboration and workers loath to forgo flexibility, according to monthly surveys of worker sentiment maintained by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who studies remote work.

Escalating expenses

One reason workers say they’re reluctant to return is money. Some who have lost remote-work privileges said they are spending hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars each month on meals, commutes and child care.

One supercommuter who treks to her Manhattan job from her home in Philadelphia negotiated a two-day-a-week limit to her New York office time this year. Otherwise, she said she could easily spend $10,000 a year on Amtrak tickets if she commuted five days a week.

Christos Berger, a 25-year-old mortgage-loan assistant who lives outside Washington, D.C., estimates she spends $2,100 on child care and $450 on gas monthly now that she is working up to three days a week in the office.

Berger and her husband juggled parenting duties when they were fully remote. The cost of office life has her contemplating a big ask: clearance to work from home full time.

“Companies are pushing you to be available at night, be available on weekends,” she said, adding that she feels employers aren’t taking into account parents’ need for family time.

Rachel Cottam, a 31-year-old head of content for a tech company, works full time from her home near Salt Lake City, making the occasional out-of-town trip to headquarters. She used to be a high-school teacher, spending weekdays in the classroom. Back then, she and her husband spent $100 a week on child care and $70 a week on gas. Now they save that money. She even let her car insurance company know she no longer commutes and they knocked $5 a month off the bill.

Friends who have been recalled to offices tell Cottam about the added cost of coffee, lunch and beauty supplies. They also talk about the emotional cost they feel from losing work flexibility.

“For them, it feels like this great ‘future of work’ they’ve been gifted is suddenly ripped away,” she said.

Parent trade-offs

If pandemic-era flexible schedules go away, a huge number of parents will drop out of the workforce, workers say.

When Meghan Skornia, a 36-year-old urban planner and married mother of an 18-month-old son, was looking for a new job last year, she weeded out job openings with strict in-office policies. Were she given such mandates, she said, she would consider becoming an independent consultant.

The firm in Portland, Ore., where Skornia now works requests one day a week in the office, but doesn’t dictate which day. The arrangement lets her spend time with her son and juggle her job duties, she said. “If I were in the office five days a week, I wouldn’t really ever see my son, except for weekends.”

Emotional labor

For some, coming into the office means donning a mask to fit in.

Kenneth Thomas, 42, said he left his investment-firm job in the summer of 2021 when the company insisted that workers return to the office full time. Thomas, who describes himself as a 6-foot-2 Black man, said managing how he was perceived—not slipping into slang or inadvertently appearing threatening through body language—made the office workday exhausting. He said that other professionals of colour have told him they feel similarly isolated at work.

“When I was working from home, it freed up so much of my mental bandwidth,” he said. His current job, treasurer of a green-energy company, allows him to work remotely two or three days a week.

Lost productivity

The longer the commute, the less likely workers are to return to offices.

Ryan Koch, a Berkeley, Calif., resident, went to his San Francisco office two days a week as required late last year, but then he let his attendance slide, because commuting to an office felt pointless. “I’m doing the same video calls that I can be doing at home,” he said.

Koch, who works in sales, said his nonattendance wasn’t noted so long as his numbers were good. When Koch and other colleagues were unable to meet sales quotas in recent weeks, they were laid off. Ignoring the in-office requirement probably didn’t help, he said, adding he hopes to land a new hybrid role where he goes in one or two days.

Jess Goodwin, a 36-year-old media-marketing professional, turned down an offer to go from freelance to full time earlier this year because the role required office time and no change in pay.

Goodwin said a manager “made it really clear that this is what they’re mandating right now and it could change in the future to ‘you have to be back in five days a week.’”

Goodwin, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., calculated that subway commutes to Midtown Manhattan would consume more than 150 hours annually, in addition to time spent getting ready for work.

Goodwin’s holding out for a better offer. She said she would consider a hybrid position if it came with a generous package and good commute, adding: “And I would also probably need something in my contract being like, ‘We’re not going to increase the number of days you have to come in.’”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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