One formula explains why some employees are running back to the office, while others would rather quit

More time with family. Less time in traffic. More isolation.

We all experienced this global experiment that we called work-from-home a little differently. In the beginning, for most of us, let’s just say: It. Was. Wild! For the first two weeks, my default meeting agenda included shutting off my video and mic, shouting at my kids for the seventh time to get out of the room, then switching my video back on intentionally looking as composed as possible. “…Right, right, very good point.” By week three, I was like, F — — it, lots of us have kids. Let’s not pretend any more. If they barge in, that’s real life.

Two years in, we have developed routines. Work-from-home turned into remote work. Some of us moved away from the office to save money or be closer to family. Some of us gave birth to totally-on-purpose kids. Many of us changed jobs. A few traveled the world. Some lost family members. And many of us struggled with mental health.

Now we are told it’s time to go back to the office. Online, people are shouting “We don’t want to go back to the office!” “We do want to go back to the office!” “We want hybrid!” But really, everyone’s personality, circumstances and experiences are different, so we are never going to come to a consensus.

One equation to rule them all

In trying to make sense of this all, I’ve come to learn that people evaluate their work through a pretty consistent formula:

Compensation + Job Fulfillment + Effect on Life Satisfaction = Job Satisfaction

In this case, Compensation consists of current remuneration & benefits, expectations of future benefits, and stability. Job Fulfillment includes a sense of purpose, professional relationships, and the opportunity cost of staying in the current job. Effect on Life Satisfaction, which many would not have thought to include here before the pandemic, consists of how much your job affects personal relationships, hobbies, physical and mental health.

In addition to these measures, each individual assigns a personal weighting (W) to each of these three components, so the formula actually looks more like this:

(W1) Compensation + (W2) Job Fulfillment + (W3) Effect on Life Satisfaction = Job Satisfaction

Changes to our personal equations

Two years of the pandemic change the values in this equation for everyone. These changes were different for everyone individually. While we can’t assume we know how everyone reacted, there are some trends.

Many young people, particularly those who had recently moved to take on a new job, experienced a decrease in Job Fulfillment, feeling isolated in new cities, missing out on after-work happy hours, office banter, and dare I say Secret Santas (I shudder at those words). Meanwhile, parents of young kids, often in that critical middle-manager role, may have experienced an increase in Life Satisfaction, with more time with family and more flexibility to take care of the eeeeeendless logistics, negotiations, cleanup, school runs, timeouts, snack times, dirty diapers …. oh, sorry where was I? oh, yes … of childcare. With society often pushing these responsibilities on women, it’s no wonder a recent survey of 10,000+ knowledge workers across three continents shows that 83% of working mothers surveyed want location flexibility.

Another consistent trend came from the harrowing experience of literally being scared for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. We were faced with the fact that we are not always in control and everything could be taken away from us in a single sneeze. We started to question why we let work determine so many important life decisions and why we were not spending more time with our loved ones. Many started chasing that wild dream we’ve always been putting off (I’m still coming for you, catamaran!). And with these questions, we increased the weight of the Effect on Life Satisfaction (W3) in our personal equations.

As the pandemic went on, some quit their jobs, and as we started entertaining the idea of starting podcasts or going independent, the opportunity cost of our current roles was greater. Opportunity Cost continued to mount as labor shortages caused by the Great Resignation allowed new hires to demand more pay, and as inflation squeezed our budgets.

It’s getting late, everyone get inside for culture-building time

As employers and boards around the world ring the dinner bell and tell employees it’s time to come back to the office, workers will once again reevaluate this equation. For some, the move will be welcomed as social interaction and a change of scenery (No, that cool moving Zoom background of a beach doesn’t count) increases their Job Satisfaction. Others will see a decrease in Life Satisfaction, which they weigh more heavily now, as they try to juggle the logistics of life and lose the freedom to be located where they feel most satisfied.

The move back to the office is going to be messy, and I don’t specifically mean those after-work happy hours. I’m expecting to see many experiments with company policies, and multiple course corrections. In the next two to three years, I expect a bifurcation of companies that are remote vs. in-office, and for employees to self-select their preferences. Perhaps the remote-first movement will catch on in the long run, but the jury is still stuck in their assigned Zoom breakout rooms.

As companies try to understand their employees or as employees try to better understand their own feelings toward return-to-office, we have to expect that everyone will have a different reaction. Hopefully, this equation can shed light and understanding on the wide variety of reactions flaring up at this time.

So, as employers push their employees back to the office, whether against their will or not, we also need to realize that the office will not be the same and there are parts of the pre-pandemic world that will have to stay in the past…Secret Santas. Clearly, no one supports Secret Santas!

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