Workers Don’t Feel Quite as Powerful as They Used To
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Workers Don’t Feel Quite as Powerful as They Used To

Fears of an economic downturn are shaking some people’s career confidence, driving them toward stable jobs—and even back to offices.

By Callum Borchers
Fri, Jun 17, 2022 11:30amGrey Clock 3 min

Becca Smith will be back to work in no time.

Laid off from her sales position at a startup a couple of weeks ago, she says she’s received more than a dozen inquiries from recruiters in response to a LinkedIn post about her job loss.

Yet something has changed since the 40-year-old Indiana mother started at her former employer last summer. Back then, she was determined to work from home—and felt sure she could get her way. She also had the confidence to join a fledgling business amid a roaring economy.

No more.

“I will give priority to larger, more-established companies for this job search,” says Ms. Smith, whose old company was venture-funded and cut about one-third of the team to conserve cash. She adds she’ll consider reporting to an office part time. She’d also like her next job to involve selling a product customers need even in bad times, rather than a luxury that could get cut from the budget when money is short.

Though the labor market remains tight and many people still have leverage to negotiate high salaries and remote accommodations, some are bracing for a day when things won’t be so great. As unemployment claims tick higher and business leaders like Elon Musk try to reassert their in-office dominance, workers are showing a little less swagger and looking for more stability than they did just a few months ago.

It’s a strange limbo. Working conditions are about as good as they’ve ever been for many people, and office workers’ complaints can seem petty by historical standards. (Imagine your 2019 self griping about being required to work in an office a few days a month.) Yet a loss of total remote freedom, coupled with sobering economic forecasts, can make it feel like workers’ power is slipping away.

Some companies sense the change and are wresting back more control over how much they cater to employees.

Boston Properties Chief Executive Owen Thomas says his tenants are growing bolder about office callbacks. The national office occupancy rate hit 44% last week, according to an estimate by Kastle Systems, which tracks building-access-card swipes. That’s the highest since the onset of the pandemic.

Employers’ fear that workers will flee for other jobs if told to return to their desks is beginning to subside.

“Some companies are doing layoffs, and that puts pressure on people to get back to the office and stay closer to the senior leaders,” says Mr. Thomas, whose firm is among the largest commercial landlords in several major cities.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said repeatedly that she doesn’t expect the U.S. economy to fall into another recession. Such reassurances wouldn’t seem necessary if not for credible concerns, however, and it might not take the R-word to spook workers.

Career coach Phil Rosenberg says his calendar is filling up with clients who worry it’s now or never—or not for a while, at least—to snag a job with the pay and flexibility they want.

“People are trying to land before the next downturn,” he says.

Luis Caballero, one of Mr. Rosenberg’s clients, says he’s relieved to be starting a new position as a marketing executive next month.

He left a large company in late 2020 with a big enough severance package to support his family for two years, by his estimate, and initially wasn’t in a hurry to find his next long-term fit. Why would he have been?

“Companies were desperate for senior leadership,” says Mr. Caballero of the record numbers of workers who have quit or switched jobs over the past 12 months. “Several friends of mine were writing their own ticket.”

Mr. Caballero, 50, took what he describes as a short-lived “rebound” job last year but quit in February. Searching anew, he says the market“was not the gold mine I had heard about.” Many high-level roles paid less or had heavier workloads than he anticipated.

Mr. Caballero says he accepted an offer that met his expectations—with one major compromise. He’ll drive 10 hours round-trip from his home in Arizona to an office in California, staying over a night or two, to satisfy a requirement to work in person a couple of days a week.

Taking a new job can be risky in the event of a downturn. Some businesses take a last-in-first-out approach to downsizing. As the pandemic fades, companies that grew quickly when people were mostly homebound could cut back as life normalizes. Peloton, Netflix and Carvana already have laid off staff this year.

“If I’m a job seeker these days and I’m smart, I’m considering the business: Is it a business that just developed because of Covid?” says Stacie Haller, a career counsellor at ResumeBuilder.com.

For now, though, the labour market still favours workers, especially in certain industries, she says.

Competition for talent remains intense in biotechnology, with candidates often able to pick among several offers, according to Jean Sabatini, head of staffing at Tango Therapeutics in Cambridge, Mass.

Tech workers, too, enjoy considerable bargaining power, though some have been humbled by the sector’s volatile stock-market performance and shrinking venture-capital pool in recent months, says Allan Jones, founder of an HR software startup in Los Angeles.

The hiring dynamic for most of the past two years has been “bonkers,” he says; prospects frequently Zoomed into job interviews with a confidence bordering on arrogance and scoffed when told that Mr. Jones’s company, Bambee, is office-centric.

Lately, the conversations have changed.



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A cash prize from Kanebridge Quarterly magazine, offered for the first time this year, drew a record number of entries for the design competition

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A versatile stool with a sense of fun took out the top prize at the Australia’s Next Top Designers awards at Design Show Australia last week.

The ‘Cheeky’ stool designed by Maryam Moghadam was the unanimous winner among the judging panel, which included Kanebridge Quarterly magazine Editor in Chief, Robyn Willis, Workshopped Creative Director Olaf Sialkowski, Design Show event organiser, Andrew Vaughan and Creative Director at Flexmirror Australia, Matt Angus.

Designed as an occasional stool or side table, the Cheeky stool comes in a range of skin tones. The judges applauded its commercial applications, its flexibility to work in a range of environments, and its sense of play.

In accepting the $10,000 prize, designer Maryam Moghadam quipped she was pleased to see ‘other people find bums as funny as I do’. A finalist at last year’s awards, Moghadam will put the prize money towards bringing her product to market.

Winner Maryam Moghadam said the $10,000 prize money would be put towards developing her product further for market.

Australia’s Next Top Designers is in its fourth year, but this is the first year a cash prize has been offered. Kanebridge Quarterly magazine has put up the prize money to support the next generation of emerging industrial design talent in Australia.

Editor in Chief Robyn Willis said the cash prize offered the winner the opportunity to put the money towards whatever aspect of their business it would most benefit.

“That might be prototyping their product further, spending on marketing, or simply paying for travel or even childcare expenses to allow the designer to focus on their work and take it to the next stage,” she said. “We’re thrilled to be supporting this design program and nurturing emerging design in a very practical way.”

The Coralescence lamps from the Tide Pool series by Suzy Syme and Andrew Costa had strong commercial applications, the judges said.
The Mass lamp by Dirk Du Toit is crafted from FSC-certified oak or walnut.

Two finalists were also awarded ‘highly commended’ by the judges — Mass lamp by Dirk Du Toit and the Coralescence lights from Suzy Syme and Andrew Costa at Tide Pool Designs. The judges agreed both products were beautifully resolved from a design perspective, as well as having strong commercial applications in residential and hospitality design. 

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