Esther Crawford posing in front of a Twitter logo
Elon Musk promoted Esther Crawford after she posted a picture of herself sleeping by her desk, but made her redundant last month © Robert Cowherd

When Esther Crawford posted a photo of herself stretched out in a sleeping bag and mask at Twitter’s San Francisco HQ, under the hashtag #SleepWhereYouWork, the image seemed to encapsulate how far the pendulum had swung since Covid-19 sent office workers homeward.

Three years ago, employers not only accepted the need for remote working, but rolled out policies to support homeworkers’ wellbeing — from the provision of IT equipment to meditation apps, online yoga classes, and help for staff struggling with stress, bereavement or mental illness.

But Elon Musk, who promoted Crawford shortly after her photo went viral in November, only to make her redundant in the latest round of job cuts last month, is just one of a string of high-profile bosses now taking a tougher line with white-collar workers. The main battleground is the contested terrain of hybrid working.

One of the first actions of Twitter’s new owner was to summon employees back to the office, while telling them to embrace “long hours at high intensity” — or quit. And, as job cuts spread from the tech sector to consultancies, finance and other sectors, employers who previously felt obliged to offer flexibility appear increasingly unwilling to let staff choose where and when they work.

Disney chief executive Bob Iger told staff in January that they would be expected in person four days a week from March, asserting it would benefit “the company’s creativity, culture and our employees’ careers”. Following similar “office mandates” from the likes of Apple and Google, Starbucks and Goldman Sachs, in February, Amazon became the latest to order back teams it had left to set their own arrangements, citing “our overriding priority to deliver for customers and the business”.

This is happening despite a lack of clear evidence about whether hybrid work practices affect productivity one way or the other. “A lot of it seems to be about power,” says Rob Briner, a professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London. Managers who insist collaboration can only take place in person, he suggests, really want to prove “who’s in charge”.

However, despite the change in tone, researchers who track management practices say that, outside tech — which experimented with wholly remote work to the greatest extreme — they see a gradual drift back to the office, not a sudden clampdown on flexible work.

This video grab taken from a video posted on the Twitter account of billionaire Tesla chief Elon Musk on October 26, 2022 shows himself carrying a sink as he enters the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco
‘Let that sink in’, Elon Musk tweeted on his arrival at Twitter HQ © Twitter account of Elon Musk/AFP via Getty Images

“There has been a bit of a shift . . . Fully remote [work] is over,” says Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University in the US, who has been researching homeworking since long before the pandemic. But he points out that even companies most insistent on in-person work are also closing some offices to cut costs and outsourcing routine functions to staff who are never on site. About 15 per cent of the US labour force works entirely from home but is “invisible” due to this, Bloom says.

Meanwhile, companies are enforcing policies on hybrid work more rigorously but, for the graduate workforce, that does not create a mismatch between employers’ and employees’ preferences, he says. In the US, the proportion of days worked from home has settled at about 30 per cent. There is a global pattern in which graduates work from home one or two days a week, and “Fridays are sacrosanct”.

There is a simple reason why the hours have become so consistent: employees like them — especially those in their 30s and 40s juggling work and family duties.

Bosses remain sceptical, though, says Katie Jacobs, senior stakeholder lead at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development — even though HR directors often favour hybrid work. She says managers worry that homeworking will harm corporate culture and collaboration and make it harder to integrate new starters.

However, in a tight labour market, when companies do not want to risk losing staff to competitors but they also face cost pressures, it can be easier to offer flexibility than a big pay rise.

“Even in a recession, you care about recruitment and retention,” says Bloom, who estimates that staff value splitting their time between home and office as roughly equal to an 8 per cent pay rise.

Lauren Thomas, an economist at the jobs website Glassdoor, also notes that “in the knowledge economy, employees are your biggest asset”, so it is an “oversimplification” to view debates on hybrid work as “a tug of war between employees who want flexibility and wellbeing and employers who don’t”.

So far, a tougher economic climate has done relatively little harm to a buoyant jobs markets in which workers can vote with their feet. But some worry that employees’ newfound freedoms could evaporate if redundancies spread and a recession erodes their bargaining power.

“It’s been employee-led all the way: employers were responding to that employee demand,” says Gemma Dale, a consultant and lecturer at Liverpool Business School, who believes many UK companies have tolerated hybrid working but have not made the changes needed for it to boost productivity.

And, where companies have trialled new models without making them contractual, “that does leave employees quite vulnerable”, Dale adds. “I’ve been concerned for some time that we’d see a backlash if power started to shift.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article