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Why employers are starting to mandate in-person work at least a couple days a week

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Disney is forcing its employees to return to in-person work at least four days a week later this winter. It's the latest big employer to bring people back to the office since the pandemic began, but it's also a move that can create a lot of friction between a company and its workers. David Garfield is the global head of industries at AlixPartners, an international consulting firm. He joins us to give us the employer's perspective on this. Welcome to the program.

DAVID GARFIELD: Thank you. Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: You know, thank you so much for joining us. So you've been advising CEOs on when or if or how much their companies should return to the office. Like, what have they been telling you?

GARFIELD: First of all, CEOs are saying that their businesses have been hit with wave after wave of disruption, from COVID to supply chain disruptions, through inflation and new technologies. And they feel that they've lost some productivity and some connectivity among employees as a result of remote working. And so they're revising their work policies to try to bring people together face-to-face and back to the office, striking the right balance between pulling people in and preserving some measure of flexibility.

RASCOE: A lot of the people on the other side of this - the workers - may say that it's just their bosses don't trust them to be really working when they're at home. They think they're just doing their laundry and stuff. Who's right about that?

GARFIELD: Right, and that's a great point. So for productivity, there are certain activities that do benefit from face-to-face, even with all the benefits of technology. One is tasks like product design and development. If you are designing a physical product, the difference between feeling it in your hands and seeing how people react is meaningful. Another is just sensitive topics like designing organizational changes or discussing M&A transactions. And then the third is unplanned encounters - the, you know, bumping into someone in the hallway or having the extra chat outside of the conference room, which has been shown to contribute to innovation.

RASCOE: I think you said that one CEO said they never thought they'd be held hostage by a millennial. Like, is that a common sentiment?

GARFIELD: No, and that's a real quote. I mean, CEOs really are struggling with this challenge. And one CEO said to me, I never thought I'd be held hostage by a millennial. So that gives you a sense of the challenge and the frustration.

RASCOE: At this moment, do employers have more leverage because there is an idea that the economy is more - on more shaky ground and that there could be a possible recession?

GARFIELD: Sure. So even though people are worried about recessionary conditions and feeling the big pinch of inflation, leverage has not flipped to employers entirely just yet because the job market is still hot. Part of the reason was, since COVID hit, there has been a lot of small business job growth. But any which way, the labor market is still relatively tight. And so employers still have to, you know, really appeal to their workforces. And that's why you've seen, I think, a lot of careful crafting of these policies and, in some cases, you know, trialing and piloting things.

RASCOE: I mean, so looking into the future - I know you don't have a crystal ball - but has the way people worked in these sorts of desk jobs, you know, for lack of a better term, changed for good? Like, even if you have people coming back to the office, are they going to be there five days a week like they were in the past?

GARFIELD: I think we're going to see employers being more flexible. I think the ones that try to rewind the clock and go all the way back to pre-pandemic conditions are not going to be successful. Too many people have experienced remote work and hybrid work. And frankly, there's been too much progress in the use of technology and adapting work to a remote or to a hybrid approach.

RASCOE: That's David Garfield, the global head of industries at AlixPartners. Thank you so much for joining us.

GARFIELD: Thank you very much. It was great to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.