Flexible Employers: Gone with the Virus

By Keshan Warakaulle

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Companies sent money to their white-collar employees to help them purchase desks and chairs for their work-from-home offices and gift baskets to lift their spirits. They also urged them to use their vacation time wisely and to pay attention to their mental health. Among other initiatives, companies launched Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programmes; promised to hire and promote more women, and abandoned harsh performance reviews in favour of more “empathetic” assessments were

All of this altered once the outbreak subsided. Professional workers are still in shock, following a wave of layoffs that included more than 100,000 in the tech sector alone in 2023. Even those who are still employed may find that their employer has changed from the sympathetic, understanding figure they grew close to during the first two years of the outbreak.

For example, Delta Air Lines informed its employees that they are no longer permitted to use Delta’s Sky Clubs, regardless of whether they are travelling on company business or have purchased Sky Club services for themselves. In January 2023, Goldman Sachs discontinued its free coffee offer.

Meta Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg informed staff that performance evaluations would be more rigorous than before; Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, reportedly urged staff to work with “greater urgency, sharper focus, and more hunger”; and X, formerly known as Twitter owner Elon Musk, advised staff to resign if they did not wish to put in long hours at high intensity.

These changes are not just in technology. Instead of full-time employment, an increasing number of businesses are offering new hires contract positions. Between May 2022 and November 2022, there were 25% more contract listings on LinkedIn than there had been during the same time the year before.

Because of this emphasis on the bottom line, management frequently abandons initiatives that were launched during the pandemic and staff members who were employed to purportedly make the workplace a more compassionate and diverse environment were also made redundant. Employers who believed that the 9–5 workday was history; and rushed to retain workers as talk of the “Great Resignation” spread were themselves history. Experts who projected a new era of work in which individuals followed occupations they genuinely liked, and businesses that took a stand on social problems were no longer found.

For the millions of professionals working around the world who had been gaining power over their employers for the first time in decades, these changes are a severe setback. Employers from all across the world are now requesting that their staff members concentrate on boosting productivity. As the likelihood of a recession rises, many businesses are focusing on worker productivity and cost reductions. A Microsoft survey from September highlighted a “paranoia” in which 85% of managers questioned the efficacy of their remote employees.

The window of opportunity for the epidemic to radically reshape employment in many organisations throughout the world is rapidly closing, though, as even employers who had made a commitment to change are already reversing course. The “new” workplace brought about by the pandemic might not be more inclusive, varied, or cheerful than the one that already existed. As a result, there will be fewer women and underrepresented minorities in the workforce because the measures achieved during the pandemic that improved their working conditions are now being undone.

We Bid You Farewell, Sweeter Employer.

The epidemic was experienced by many employees, especially young mums, as a great equaliser. Because everyone at the company was encouraged to stay at home, spend time with their families, and balance work and their own mental health, mothers with young children did not feel as though they were falling behind their colleagues without children or those with a stay-at-home spouse.

But around the middle of 2022, perceptions began to shift. Employers were requesting 60-hour work weeks and lacked patience for anyone who wasn’t working themselves to exhaustion.

In fact, a lot of businesses are presenting recent developments as initiatives to provide their workers more freedom. Microsoft‘s chief people officer Kathleen Hogan informed staff in January 2023 that the business was “modernising” its vacation policy (called leave policy in Australia) and transitioning to “discretionary time off,” wherein workers receive “unlimited” vacation days. In May 2022, Goldman Sachs made the same transition to unlimited vacation time.

On paper, that seems fantastic. However, many people viewed “unlimited” vacation time as a deceptive benefit because it relieved employers of the obligation to reimburse workers for any unused paid time off (unused leave) in the event that they quit or are fired.

Perhaps by coincidence, thousands of employees have been let go by both Microsoft and Goldman Sachs since the change. Due to the fact that unused vacation days do not accumulate on their balance sheet, this approach also improves their cash flow.

Back to Office, or Else

Additionally, employers are reevaluating the exact location they want their employees to be in while at work. Despite the fact that remote work saw a boom in popularity during the pandemic, companies all across the world are calling workers back to the office. Further, some return-to-office rules appear to be getting more rigorous, forcing workers to be in the office five days a week. Compared to 20% in March 2022, only roughly 13% of jobs posted on LinkedIn today allow for remote work.

As tech businesses cut staff, they’ve started by eliminating diversity posts because they claim they hired too quickly during the pandemic. Following the passing of George Floyd, racial equity agreements in the USA that were commonplace in the spring of 2020 seem to have vanished into oblivion. As a result of #MeToo, businesses also seem to be abandoning their promises to gender equality.

Many of the people who businesses had claimed they were attempting to attract and hire during the pandemic, including workers with disabilities, older workers, women, and workers from under-represented groups, may be harmed by these changes to remote work regulations. Many of them would quit their jobs if required to go back to the office since they prefer working remotely.

Black workers claim that remote work allows them access to jobs in regions outside of the region where they live and freedom from the “microaggressions” they commonly endure at work. Women claim that remote work helps them better combine work and family.

The Bottom-Line Impact of these Changes

Ironically, human resource experts warn that businesses’ shifting perspectives about their workforces could hurt their bottom line. According to McKinsey, businesses with a greater ethnic diversity have a 36% higher chance of outperforming their less diverse counterparts. Greater gender diversity on executive teams was associated with a 25% increased likelihood of businesses experiencing above-average profitability.

The cost of benefit cuts may be more than the cost of the perks themselves since engaged employees perform better at work than those who dislike their jobs or supervisors. Employee management, however, does not rank highly on the list of objectives for many CEOs who rose to positions of leadership without any human resources training.

However, the fact that there are few indications that the Western economies are experiencing a recession may prove to be the largest obstacle for businesses trying to change their mentality. Despite some layoffs, the US economy added more than 500,000 jobs. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics in USA, there were two-thirds more job opportunities in December 2022—11 million—than there were in January. Given the large number of Baby Boomers who retired during the epidemic and the long-term low birth rate in the United States, demographic trends indicate that there may be very severe labour shortages in the future.

If their new policies push away people who had long been on the margins of the workforce, such as disabled workers and parents of young children, employers—who are already lamenting a lack of trained workers—are in for a nasty surprise. Instead of a more productive workplace, companies can discover that they are unable to continue hiring.

Keshan Warakaulle is Social Media Manager at ICMA(ANZ)

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