How companies can strengthen their workforces in an uncertain labor market

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The siren song CEOs are singing to lure employees back to the office continues to fall on deaf ears. 

Chief executive officers who assembled for a Fortune virtual conversation that centered on building resilience in an uncertain labor market spent a large portion of the discussion focused on hybrid work and how they are aiming to coax their colleagues—yet again after many failed attempts—to come into the office more regularly.

At pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, the challenge has been how the company can create a sense of fairness when expectations vary so greatly across the company. Workers in China and Japan go into the office every day, as there isn’t much of a work-from-home culture in those countries, but workers in the Bay Area aren’t so keen to go to the office. Shift workers in manufacturing may have different expectations versus employees in the lab.

“There is quite a bit of tension in having different rules for different people,” said Eli Lilly chair and CEO David Ricks. “People start seeing each other not based on output, but based on when they are there.”

Doris Meister, CEO and chairman of Wilmington Trust, said she sees a generational split in the desire to return to the office. Younger workers are more likely to want to come to the office, to learn how to handle clients and pick up other critical career skills from more senior colleagues. But employees who are parents prize flexibility over career advancement, especially in homes where both parents work.

“We really pay attention to subpopulations and try, whenever possible, to balance flexibility and the need to be in the office,” said Meister. Wilmington Trust operates on a hybrid model of office work three days a week.

Meister expressed some concern about studies that show that health outcomes have dipped since the pandemic. In May, the surgeon general raised the alarm about an increased sense of loneliness in the population, which affects mental, physical, and societal health.

“I believe companies play a role here in being a community that draws people out of isolation,” said Meister. “Being very purpose led, and very focused on the greater good, is what we are working toward.”

Unlike most, Judy Marks, CEO and president of Otis Worldwide, hasn’t had much of an issue getting workers back to the office. The elevator and escalator manufacturer’s team has a lot of frontline essential workers who remained active throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer than 500 of the company’s 69,000-person workforce is remote. 

“Because we are so much of a service business, we had to keep the hospitals running, all the condos and apartments and their elevators running,” said Marks. And workers don’t seem to mind, as the company’s attrition rate is in the mid-single digits. 

The delicate dance of knowing how far to push colleagues to return to work reflects research that shows that after compensation, work flexibility is the second-most important priority for workers. And in a tight labor market with the unemployment rate hovering just a sliver above the lowest it has been since 1969, employers don’t want to scare off talent by being too restrictive. 

Tech firms, in particular, have a delicate dance as the industry continues to prize flexibility and the war for talent is fierce because of the high salaries offered by giants like Apple and Google

“A tool I have is, we are hybrid, and I push the decision making down to the management level,” said Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson. “If the manager says, ‘I need five people in every day,’ then that’s the team you join and that’s what you sign up to.”

Technology and IT consulting services provider Wipro has added a net 100,000 new people over the last 10 quarters, but to get people back in the office, the company started by asking the top 5,000 leaders to come back. 

“In technology, there is no doubt that talent is a currency and that talent is going to be something that companies fight for,” said Wipro CEO Thierry Delaporte.

Sharon Marcil, a managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, said employers are dealing with a labor market that is “really mixed and really dynamic.” The consultant’s research shows that 60% of employees leave their companies because they don’t see career opportunities, and only 10% of open roles in the U.S. are filled by internal candidates. Last year, over 50 million people quit their job in the U.S.—a new record.

Marcil said employers have ways to combat attribution. For frontline workers, they can create better shift designs so that workers that are compensation motivated can pick the hours that work best for them, while parents can prioritize flexibility. Marcil advocates employers should focus more on the skills that candidates have for certain roles, rather than just looking at their degrees. 

“At IBM, what they saw was you can get great talent if you [look at] skills first, and that talent did very, very well and that talent was more loyal,” said Marcil, who spoke favorably of former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.

Along with pay and workplace flexibility, ADP president and CEO Maria Black said workplace culture and career growth are key expectations for today’s worker. Black said employers should think not only about the beginning and end of an employee life cycle, from entry-level hiring to retirement, but also the middle portion, which she called “inspire.”

“The piece in the middle has become more fundamental,” said Black.

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