There’s nothing like a recession to bring everyone back down to earth.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed many areas of life for two long years. Social distancing was the norm, travel was halted, and all sports and recreational activities were canceled. Perhaps no area felt a longer-lasting impact than labor. As companies bent over backwards to stay open, maintain productivity, and rehire the employees they had to let go, they had to battle with the growing difficulties in the labor market. It was a worker’s market. Good employees were in demand, and businesses were forced to offer higher wages, better working hours, and an increasing number of work-from-home (WFH) options. And of course, they had to compete with unemployment benefits increasing to the point of being on par with many of the openings employers were looking to fill. People would rather stay home, do nothing, and be paid for it rather than having to work for that same exact paycheck.
However, all of that seems to be coming to an end. With the pandemic waning and a recession on the way, workers are losing that leverage. Wages are stagnating, so companies are no longer forced to bid on their services. Shorter working hours are out as well. Increased unemployment benefits are long gone at this point. And the last shoe seems to be dropping, as companies are beginning to tighten the screws on the WFH crowd. The three largest tech companies in the country – Google, Apple, and Meta – have returned workers to the office in some capacity, with Meta considering returning to their pre-pandemic model. And if you think about it, if tech companies - who employ individuals who basically exclusively work on computers - are starting to recall their employees, you have to believe that other industries are not too far behind.
Companies no longer feel forced to give prospective employees the farm, as it is now, once again, an employer’s market. In an interview with Bloomberg in June, real estate investor Stephen Ross correctly predicted just how much a poor economy can affect workers. “The employees will recognize as we go into a recession, or as things get a little tighter, that you have to do what it takes to keep your job and to earn a living.” The implication being that some workers will forgo some of the perks we saw last year, and that there may be some staying power if the boss sees them in the office every day as opposed to never thinking about the WFH employee.
But those of us who have been back in the office for months at this point have noticed sharp rises in traffic and public transportation uses. Come September, when summer vacations are over and schools begin again, you can expect to see those increase even further. If you were used to getting a seat on the subway or driving to work at a particular speed, be ready for that to change. And if you’re working for a company that instituted a WFH policy, don’t be surprised if that comes to an end.
The great irony here is that WFH was supposed to increase productivity. Workers were supposed to be happier at home, and all that time previously spent commuting would have added to their time working, or at least their overall satisfaction with work. If we are to return to in-person work, it won’t matter how many surveys of employee happiness or employer satisfaction come out in favor of the WFH model. All it will mean is that companies have decided that the productivity did not increase, and that WFH is a failure.
And that would mean the end of WFH. Think about it. If we went on this international mandated WFH requirement, and after only two and a half years, companies are ready to ditch it, how could it ever come back from that? This was always the gamble. Like an employee forced to sink or swim, WFH may have just failed the test and drawn its last breath.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.