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Expect ‘Huge Battles' Over Working From Home Between Employees and Bosses Soon, Says Stanford Professor Who's Studied Remote Work for 20 Years

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Flexible work arrangements have become non-negotiable for job-seekers and employees alike — so much so that people now value such flexibility as much as a 10% pay raise, according to new research from the WFH Research Project. But not all companies are on the same page as their employees when it comes to remote and hybrid work.

Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, co-founded the research team in May 2020 alongside Jose Maria Barrero, an assistant professor at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) in Mexico City, and economist Steven J. Davis.

Their latest research, shared on Jan. 3, collected responses from more than 17,000 employees in the United States about their attitudes toward working from home versus returning to the office. 

About 50% of respondents who have worked from home during the coronavirus pandemic said they would prefer a hybrid schedule once the virus is under control. 

Although large shares of people prefer a remote or hybrid work arrangement, Bloom, who has studied remote work for nearly 20 years, tells CNBC Make It that he expects there to be "huge battles" between employees and managers over remote work in the coming months. 

Executives want more people in the office

Most larger companies are led by older, white men – the group that least values working from home and has been the most vocal about the need to return to office, according to Bloom's research. 

A June 2021 report from Deloitte shows that white men make up about 62% of the boards of Fortune 500 companies. Other research — including a May 2021 report from Future Forum, Slack's research consortium — has shown that white men are the most enthusiastic group to return to the office. 

"If you look at who the decision makers at the big firms are, they are usually older, non-minority men who have no young kids in the house," Bloom explains. "If you're a 55-year-old man that's a CEO, it might be hard for you to understand how many of your employees really need hybrid/remote work."

People of color and employees with young children tend to value flexible work arrangements at much higher rates, according to Bloom's research. There's several factors driving the gap between executive and employee perceptions on in-person work.

Future Forum's report found that a large portion of Black workers feel better supported and receive fairer treatment in a remote environment. FlexJobs surveyed 1,100 parents with young children in April 2021 and more than 50% of respondents said flexible schedules and working from have had "the greatest impact" on helping them manage their child-care responsibilities.

Hybrid work creates scheduling difficulties

Another challenge that could prevent more companies from offering flexible work arrangements is scheduling. 

"There's going to be huge battles over which days people work from home and who decides that," Bloom says. "This has already been an issue for companies who have returned to in-person work: how do we align everyone's schedules?" 

Some companies, such as American Express and Lazard, have announced new policies that encourage employees to "work from anywhere" for one month each year instead of going remote full-time. 

Bloom warns that such arrangements could be difficult to coordinate and "bad for productivity." "How do you make sure too many people aren't out at once, or what if an employee wants to work every other Friday remotely instead of one month?" he says. "If [this policy] works, it could be great for employee morale, but if you get it wrong … it could be a disaster."

If companies don't budge, more employees will quit

In December, the WFH Research Team polled more than 900 employees who recently left their jobs and found that inflexible work arrangements were the number one reason people quit, with about 39% of respondents citing the "ability to work from home more" as their top priority. 

In a survey of 2,050 workers in September 2021 from OwlLabs, a video conferencing platform, one in three people who worked remotely during the pandemic said they would quit if they weren't able to continue working from home. 

"It's a perfect storm," Bloom says. "You have executives pushing for a return to the office, employees wanting to work from home and a tight labor market." 

Bloom adds that he expects companies who have held out on offering flexible work arrangements to relent soon and offer their employees the option to work from home indefinitely due to hiring constraints.

But managers shouldn't see the shift as a loss — the push to work from home might be "the most positive thing to come out of this horrible pandemic," Bloom says. 

He continues: "It's a triple win … it can boost productivity, most employees really like it, and it can help reduce pollution because less people are commuting to offices. It's not a silver bullet, but it really moves our work landscape in the right direction — and we should all be asking ourselves, 'Why did it take a global pandemic for us to finally make this shift?'"

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