Talent   //   October 24, 2023  ■  3 min read

How flux and uncertainty became the new workplace normal

Workers dealing with the return to office and transition to hybrid work are upset for a number of reasons, including the fact that some are being asked to make massive changes in their daily lives — and for some, their living situations — while they still don’t think their companies’ RTO plans are set in stone.

More than half of U.S. workers think their employers will change remote or hybrid work policies in the next year, according to an Owl Labs survey of over 2,000 respondents conducted in June. Another 16% said they aren’t sure if their employers will issue changes, which is a 45% jump from last year, the survey found.

Many employers are taking an experimental approach to hybrid work but not always making that clear to employees, or leaders may even be unsure about those details still themselves, experts say.

“There has been so much change already in policies and hybrid work design and all of this over the past year, so I think it makes sense that employees would expect it to continue to evolve,” said Caitlin Duffy, HR research director at Gartner. “But it does feel like there’s a sense of ongoing instability and a sense that it could shift at any moment.”

"It does feel like there's a sense of ongoing instability and a sense that it could shift at any moment."
Caitlin Duffy, HR research director at Gartner.

Those concerns weigh even heavier for managers, with many bearing responsibility for facilitating hybrid transitions for their own teams. Middle managers are also having to appease both resistant staff and company leaders. Nearly 70% of managers said it’s likely their employers will change hybrid policies in the next year, compared to about 30% of non-managers.

It’s unclear exactly how workers think their companies’ policies will change — for example, if the number of days required in the office will increase or decrease, or even if companies would reverse plans entirely. But a lack of clear communication is still a major issue for employers, and it’s driving employees’ concerns.

“It feels like there’s not a lot of transparency and a lot of communication with employees that help them know when to expect a change. So it does feel like it’s very much in flux,” Duffy said.

Honesty from leaders is key to foster loyalty from staff, said Michèle Lamont, a Harvard sociology professor. That speaks to another uncertainty many workers are facing: how long they’ll stay in their jobs if they aren’t happy with new required working arrangements, she stressed.

“I think that what's really going on underneath the surface is that employers are worried about their ability to really follow through and still maintain the quality of work or talent that they have in their company."
Cameron Yarbrough, co-founder and CEO of people development platform Torch.

One of the reasons RTO plans seem “blurry and wishy-washy is because I think companies recognize that workers have very strong feelings and opinions about RTO mandates,” said Cameron Yarbrough, co-founder and CEO of people development platform Torch.

“I think that what’s really going on underneath the surface is that employers are worried about their ability to really follow through and still maintain the quality of work or talent that they have in their company,” Yarbrough said.

Although the great resignation has slowed, 42% of companies with mandated RTO plans saw a higher level of employee turnover than they had anticipated, a May survey from Unispace found. Another report from the Conference Board in August found fully on-site companies saw voluntary turnover rise 26% over the last six months — almost twice the rate seen with fully remote workers.

“Workers are not expecting to keep the same employer forever,” Lamont said. “The idea that one would stick with one employer has really been challenged deeply.”