Are Workers Making Empty Threats About Quitting Over Return-to-Office Mandates?

What people say they’ll do and what they actually do are not always identical.

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Aug 29, 2023

Nearly half of workers say they’d quit over full-time return-to-office mandates, according to a recent analysis. But is that a plausible consequence of such mandates? Let’s break this down.

The Number of Remote Workers

While numbers are a little sketchy and constantly in flux, the Labor Department released numbers indicating in August through September last year, 72.5% of employers had employees who rarely or never worked remotely, compared to 60.1% roughly two years ago..

But that doesn’t tell us much because that question is about the number of employers, not the number of employees. A multibillion-dollar company with 45,000 employees counts the same as a mom-and-pop company with five employees.

Meanwhile, Stanford University asked people directly and got different answers. They report that as of July this year:

  • 12% of full-time employees were fully remote
  • 59% were fully on-site
  • 29% were in a hybrid arrangement

The Great Improbability

Let’s go back to the statement that half of workers would quit if forced to return to the office. Given Stanford’s stats, you would need 100% of employees to threaten to resign over a return to the office, plus some who are currently on site, to make that headline true.

The headline misleads the reality of the original survey question, which indicates that indicate 47% of employees “would quit a job or begin looking for a new job immediately if their employer mandated a full-time return-to-office policy.”

Firstly, “begin looking for a new job” is very different from quitting a job. A Monster poll indicated that 96% of workers were seeking a new job in 2023. This would necessarily include the majority of people who are already working remotely. But Bankrate says that only 56% of people are looking to change jobs this year.

And in 2022’s Great Resignation, only 44% of people said they were actively looking for a new job.

So while everyone is looking for a job, we know that not everyone quits every year. These overwhelming numbers seem to be more for shock value and perhaps to encourage an agenda of increasing remote work than a taste of reality.

A Lack of Remote Jobs

There is no doubt that many more people want to work from home than there are remote jobs to go around. Marie Lobbezoo, director of HR for Loss Prevention Services, described her experience when LinkedIn recommended a remote job to her.

“In 17 minutes, it had over 250 applicants. If even 10% are well-qualified for the position (and that number is likely much higher, given the number of HR professionals who have been laid off or had their positions eliminated recently), that is 25 qualified candidates in less than half an hour. The competition for fully remote HR positions is brutal. You may be well-qualified, but so is a substantial portion of the other applicants.”

This isn’t limited to the HR field. For example, in one hour, a remote licensed therapist position had 115 applicants.

All of which is to say that unless people don’t need an income (as if!), the chances of quitting without a new job are slim. And the chances of people finding a new remote job are not that great, either. They are limited.

Rykki S., a federal labor relations consultant, commented on LinkedIn: “People who can afford to quit or have options will quit. But there’s that population, similar to the “If ______ is elected President, I’ll leave the country!” crowd who talk about what they’d like to do should circumstances not go their way but really can’t afford or don’t have the options or resources to follow through.”

On the other hand, Timothy Eavanson, senior counsel for employment at Greenwald Doherty, commented:

“I have seen people quit over it. I don’t think the full nature of the job market has been as apparent yet, and I think we have a whole generation of younger workers who are crusaders for what they think is important and have never known a hard market, so they don’t totally realize what they’re getting themselves into.”

What Is Likely to Happen?

Whether people actually quit over return-to-work mandates, it’s clear that many, many want to work remotely. Employers will have to decide if their particular employees are bluffing, or if they are serious about leaving without remote work.

At the same time, it wasn’t that long ago — last year, in fact — that Forbes (never mind countless other observers) predicted that remote work would continue to increase in 2023, but it hasn’t as managers fear that people won’t be as productive remotely. At the same time, some studies show an increase in productivity with remote employees, while overall productivity decreased in the first quarter of 2023.

In other words, the experts can’t tell you what will happen in the future, either.

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