Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Offices are increasingly bringing their employees back on site, and some people just don’t want to go.
We’ve heard rumblings for a while now that workers are quitting, or threatening to quit, if they can’t continue to work from home. That’s because for many people remote work has been great—the lack of commute, flexible schedule, and more casual dress have provided a massive quality-of-life boon for many of us, to say nothing of the productivity increases some workers have discovered without regular interruptions from chatty colleagues.
But are people really willing to quit their jobs if they can’t keep working in PJ’s? I’ve been curious about how real the trend is, so I asked readers at my work advice column, Ask a Manager … and ended up pretty surprised by the response.
I heard from an enormous number of people who say that they’ll definitely quit if their job requires them to return to the office. This person speaks for a lot of others:
My small office had essentially no remote work prior to the pandemic, but we went to everyone 100% remote during COVID and proved that we could still be just as effective. In discussions about the future of the office during the pandemic, a combination of remote and in-office was held out as likely. Now they’re making noise about a return to the office next month, and it’s unclear if the WFH portion is still in play. If they require 100% back in the office, I will be looking for a new job—I was spending 24 days of each year in a commute, and I’m not interested in returning to that.
Not only are many people considering switching jobs if they have to go back to the office, but many have already done it. Here’s a sampling of what I heard:
Asked my boss if we would consider full time remote (with maybe coming in for team meetings once a week). I was told that was “impossible.” Found a full time remote gig at a $5k pay cut and was gone in about a month after that conversation. I am much happier working from home and doubt I will ever return to a full time office job.
I’m in the negotiation stage with a competitor offering my exact job with the exact same benefits/pay/etc. … but I can work from home. I’m genuinely sad to leave my job as I love the company and the people, but we have an “old school” CEO who doesn’t seem to want to budge on the issue. And I’m not the only one! Every person (save one) in an adjacent department has left over this issue. It’s madness and it’s REALLY going to affect the business. For background, I have a job where I sit in a cubicle and rarely interact with anyone. So why do I have to go to the office to do that? I’d have even been happy with a hybrid. But nope! So … off I go.
I did quit over this. I am fortunate to have enough savings to coast for a few years if I need to without impacting my quality of life, and even longer if I tighten my belt. I do not intend to ever again work in an office or somewhere that requires a commute. I have the luxury of some amount of time and resources to pick and choose opportunities available to me, and I will fully leverage that.
At the beginning of 2021 I learned that my company would have a “strong preference” for local employees to come back to the office. I started job hunting that week and just started a great position that’s fully remote. I respect an employer’s right to have employees where they want, but that comes with the employee’s right to work how they want.
My job is well paying, I love my co-workers, I enjoy the type of work I do. But I also really enjoyed WFH, and they have just brought us back in the office this week and won’t give any word on adding a work remote policy until September. So I got curious, started job searching, and in a week found a similar job, better pay, completely remote. I gave notice last week, tomorrow is my last day. Everyone at work has been shocked that I am leaving.
Of course, that’s not everyone. Plenty of people disliked working at home and are glad to get back to on site. In fact, some of them say they’d leave their jobs if they couldn’t come back to the office:
I would be looking for another job if I were told I could not come into work. A day here or there isn’t too bad. But … I have a studio apartment and it’s not big enough for me to not see my work setup everywhere I go so work just haunts me at home. I’d have to buy a home or rent an absurdly larger than I want space to make it work.
Folks on my team who have done well all are lucky enough to have large homes with rooms that they can close the door on. People who struggle are in shared spaces either with other people or other parts of their lives. The big boss here rented a smaller space and I’ve been livid about it and trying to make a very strong case that we shouldn’t just do hot-desking and barely enough space for folks with tiny cubes and fewer offices. It’s not enough space right now for the folks who want to be in the office, which is just a way to pretend to be a good culture while demanding the exclusive use of a footprint in people’s homes.
But managers are reporting unusual amounts of turnover and difficulty finding candidates at companies that won’t allow people to work from home:
I’m looking to fill some positions and it’s been exceedingly difficult to attract any candidates, much less quality candidates, with our no-flexibility policies. We have lost out on multiple quality people to competitors with more attractive workplace policies around flexibility. The companies that refuse to adapt are going to feel the effects of this in the coming months and it’s not going to be a good thing, unfortunately. I myself am looking aggressively to move to a 100% remote position and I’m far from the only one in my company to leave over the outdated “butts in seats” mentality.
So what’s going on? Obviously a big part of it is the appeal of working from home, but the past year has also sparked a great deal of reflection about what’s most important to people and how they want to spend their time. This person speaks for many others:
I’m definitely reconsidering what I want from a job, and hoping to shift my long-term financial goals to be able to retire sooner (that’s literal decades away, but maybe I can retire closer to 60 than 70). To be blunt, I didn’t come this far surviving a pandemic only to work myself to death. My peers and I (white-collar professionals in our 30s, mostly) are all having these conversations, and all of us either want to work less or do work that matters to us more.
And after going through the past year—in which many people were asked to bring their work into their homes overnight and managed to keep things running smoothly even while juggling child care, remote learning, and huge amounts of stress—a lot of people just look at their relationship to their employer very differently:
I’ve been seriously considering quitting in response to my employer’s new work from home policy. We’ll be in three days and home two days, which is a huge improvement over where we were before (10 days a year). However, how they presented the plan really rubbed me the wrong way: a flat rule, no manager flexibility, “this is just how it is.”
I don’t approach my job that way and especially haven’t while working from home—I’ve been flexible, working more hours, etc. I don’t want to sound like a snowflake, but I want some of the same flexibility I give to my job. More than ever, I think of my job as a mutual partnership and if an employer doesn’t treat it that way, I’ll consider looking elsewhere.
We’re in a moment of reckoning, and employees are claiming power in different ways than they have before. The companies that are best poised to adapt to that new reality are the ones that treat people well, and have been treating people well even when the labor market didn’t make it as much of an imperative. This person’s point is well-taken:
My company pays well, has good benefits and a pretty great culture—especially a culture of encouraging moving around within the company until you find the right fit. We aren’t seeing mass resignations at all, and we just did an engagement survey that came back with close to 90% satisfaction over many thousands of employees. I think if companies are seeing mass resignations that would have been avoidable if they had made themselves a good place to work.