Is remote work in jeopardy?
At various stages in the post-pandemic recovery process the answer has gone from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Europe’s software giant, SAP, is one of several large companies – joining Google, AT&T, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America – that have swung from supporting a flexible policy that aligns with the employee preference of working from home, to a firm stance on in-person attendance, signaling that the widespread post-pandemic practice of working remotely is over.
While at one point many CEO’s believed that remote work had many benefits, such as increased productivity, lower costs, better work-life balance and reduced environmental impact, today the focus seems to have shifted to its disadvantages, such as communication difficulties, cybersecurity risks, lower productivity and legal complications.
This is a stark contrast to SAP’s pre-pandemic approach, which allowed about half of its workforce to be remote. As recently as 2021, SAP’s CEO, Christian Klein, described SAP as a “100 percent flexible and trust-based workplace.” But like many executives, Klein is now reconsidering as the prolonged effects of the remote work trend ushered in by the pandemic may be telling a different story.
For one thing, labor market dynamics have tilted toward employers having the upper hand to make demands. After the company reported strong earnings last month, Klein expressed frustration with remote work’s effects on SAP’s culture.
“I’m not a big believer that on a video conference platform you can understand our culture, you can get educated, and you can get enabled to do your job best,” Klein said, according to reporting from Bloomberg News. Elon Musk also is one of the most bitterly opposed to remote work, even going so far as to call it “immoral”.
At first, Google, AT&T, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and SAP tried to entice workers back with extra perks like free lunches, charitable donations and concerts. But they have now abandoned this soft approach and instead, employers are taking more punitive measures, leading to an outcry from some workers who would rather quit than comply.
Bank of America sent “letters of education” to workers who haven’t been meeting the company’s attendance expectations, threatening them with disciplinary action if they didn’t step it up within two weeks.
In March of last year, Google called its staff back to the office, a move since followed by other big tech companies like Meta and Amazon. Google will be tying office attendance to performance reviews, and using badge data to track who is in, and who isn’t.
Tesla has threatened similar punitive measures – namely tracking staff attendance with badges, and the threat of calls with HR. In 2023, remote workers were 35 percent more likely to be laid off than their peers who worked in person or hybrid schedules, according to data from Live Data Technol first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Workers are rebelling against the new effort to bring them back to the office. Just days after SAP announced the crackdown, a letter written by workers opposing it, and calling it a “betrayal,” had amassed more than 5,000 signatures. The labor group representing SAP employees in Europe has deemed the policy “unreasonable”, noting the prior assurances employees had been given about remote work.
SAP spokeswoman Joellen Perry is being optimistic and downplaying the conflict, calling this period merely one of “transition.”
“Striking the right balance between remote and onsite work helps drive productivity, innovation and employee well-being,” Perry said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “We’re evolving our flexible work policy to align with best practices in the market and our own experience as a frontrunner in hybrid work.”