Generational Divide Exists in the C-Suite on Remote Work

When it comes to the future of work, bosses and employees rarely agree on what is important. However, there is disagreement even within the C-suite, particularly regarding the disparate treatment of remote and in-office workers.

Source: Bloomberg | Published on July 22, 2022

Flattening the curve: a happy woman sitting at home and talking to her friends or colleagues in a meeting using her laptop computer.

According to the Future Forum, a research consortium backed by Slack Technologies Inc., younger executives cited inequities as their top concern about flexible work arrangements, but the same issue ranked dead last among their older counterparts. The top concern of the group of about 100 older executives, the majority of whom were in their 50s, was the coordination of hybrid-work schedules, followed by productivity and learning. The 400 or so younger executives were also concerned about scheduling and culture.

The study reveals a generational divide in which executives nearing retirement age, who have spent decades in offices and prefer to manage employees in person, differ from younger managers in their 30s and 40s, who are generally more accepting of hybrid arrangements and keen to ensure they benefit everyone. Previous Future Forum polls have found that women and minority workers are more likely than other groups to prefer working from home, raising concerns that the push to return to offices will exacerbate existing workplace inequalities.

"It's troubling," said Brian Elliott, a Slack executive who oversees the Future Forum research, which polls over 10,000 white-collar workers on a quarterly basis. "The risk is that the older generation of executives will miss the fact that their diversity and inclusion goals and future work plans are inextricably linked."

Workers have returned to the workplace in recent months, but the mass migration that many predicted last year has not occurred. Many white-collar workers have continued to work from home while dealing with childcare, the grind of commuting, and concerns about rising Covid-19 cases. According to building-security firm Kastle Systems, office occupancy in ten of the largest US business districts has been stuck below 50% for the entire year, and bosses are hesitant to push workers back in a tight labor market. Nonetheless, recession fears and a rash of hiring slowdowns at companies ranging from Apple Inc. to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. may provide managers with more leverage to nudge workers back.

While that tug-of-war plays out, businesses must devote time and effort to developing flexible-work policies, which usually entail some trial and error. According to research from the HR Policy Association, which represents employers, the biggest challenge in adopting more flexible work models is a mismatch in expectations between the freedom employees crave and the amount of in-office time senior leaders want. However, according to ongoing research from academics led by Stanford University's Nicholas Bloom, the gap between what workers want and what their employers require is closing.

Companies juggling remote and in-office workers, for example, frequently try to maintain a level playing field by insisting that if one employee needs to dial into a meeting, everyone does. Teams that collaborate frequently agree on which days everyone will be in the office for more collaborative projects and which times will be reserved for focused individual work.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon of "proximity bias," in which those who arrive at the office first get ahead, persists. According to research from professors at the University of California, Davis and North Carolina University, simply being seen in the office can have an impact on performance evaluations, promotions, and job security. JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon is one of many Baby Boomer-generation executives who have argued that remote work cannot replace the spontaneous idea generation that occurs when colleagues meet at the coffee machine.

Under-represented groups, on the other hand, "want flexibility in both where and when they work," according to Sheela Subramanian, a Slack executive and Future Forum co-founder. Slack, a company that creates virtual collaboration software, benefits from a distributed workforce.