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opinion

Empty chairs at an office in Toronto.Adetona omokanye/The Globe and Mail

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

In a peculiar twist of bad economic news turning positive for some corporate leaders, a looming recession may do what Elon Musk, Tim Cook, David Solomon and other chief executives of the world’s most influential companies have struggled to do: break the back of the Great Resistance, which has seen many workers balk at going back to their offices.

New research shows that in anticipation of a recession, a majority of U.S. and global companies are considering near-term layoffs – and remote workers will likely be the first to go.

A KPMG survey of 400 CEOs released this week shows 90 per cent of U.S. CEOs and the vast majority of global CEOs believe recession will arrive within the next 12 months. More than half (51 per cent) of U.S. leaders say they are considering workforce reductions in the next six months; 80 per cent of global CEOs say cuts are on the way.

Meanwhile, in a survey of 3,000 U.S. managers called “The Future of the Digital Workplace” released this week by beautiful.ai, a San Francisco-based software company, 60 per cent of respondents said it was “likely” and/or “extremely likely” that in the event of downsizing, remote workers would be laid off first.

For work-at-homers, this emerging reality is a case of one crisis clawing back the gains from another – the COVID-19 pandemic giveth, and the recession taketh away.

For leaders such as Mr. Musk of Tesla, Mr. Cook of Apple and Mr. Solomon of Goldman Sachs, who have opposed remote work and imposed back-to-the-office ultimatums, it is an opportunity to solve what they see as one of the corporate world’s biggest bugaboos.

The impending collision of old and new normals also shines a light on a more pointed question for company leaders: What will it take for them to wrest back control of their businesses from what they see as this new phenomenon of activist employees, whose personal preferences have hijacked corporate decision-making on everything?

The answer: performance. In times of plenty, it is easy for leaders to allow – and even enable – employees to do whatever they want. But when things get tight, and such conduct is seen to distract and detract from performance, the line is drawn.

To be sure, pandemic-era studies have suggested people who work from home are more productive than they were at the office. A June, 2021, report from KPMG showed that 70 per cent of U.S. employees believed their productivity had increased working from home. They worked longer hours and spent no time commuting or on work-related travel.

But that comes at a price, even if it is hard to quantify.

Goldman’s Mr. Solomon, who called remote work an “aberration” that needed immediate correction, mandated five-days-a-week in-office work in March: “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal.”

Apple’s Mr. Cook said his September order for employees to be in the office at least three days a week was rooted in the “in-person collaboration essential to our culture.”

Maybe that’s why Tesla’s Mr. Musk, who opposed lockdown mandates, was so adamant on sending workers back to the company’s California factory in 2020 in spite of shelter-in-place orders. “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean minimum) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla,” he told employees.

Since then, Mr. Musk has enforced his mandate, tracking workers’ whereabouts using their ID badges and sending e-mails to workers who aren’t going to their offices.

If Mr. Musk’s effort is deemed successful, it is certainly not every leader’s experience.

Employees had pushed back at Mr. Cook’s back-to-work order, circulating a petition protesting what they called a “uniform mandate” and demanding more flexibility, not less.

Perhaps that’s why Google also went with a half-measure of a hybrid solution instead of ordering everyone back immediately.

As recession clouds gather, though, workers should remember that while they might think their individual productivity increases when working remotely, it is not the same case for teamwork.

In times of scarcity, collective output – and how much a worker is seen to contribute to that – trumps individual preferences every time. So, you might want to show your face in the office to remind leadership how your personal performance is adding value.