Workers have power. A recession won’t change that, one executive says.

The argument over whether work should be virtual or in physical offices is “yesterday’s conversation,” Tim Ryan, U.S. chair and senior partner at PwC, said during a Washington Post Live event Aug. 9. Employees, he said, are looking for something different.

That “something different” includes what Ryan calls “protected time off.” 

A few years ago, the company began to shut down over the holiday week in December, and worker feedback was “tremendous” about that benefit, he said. In response, the company instituted another week off in July this year, on top of the typical two to three weeks of vacation time the company provides.

“The holiday shutdown is incredibly valuable because everyone takes it off,” Ryan said. Email volume and pressure to be available goes down, meaning workers have a real chance to disconnect and recharge. Feedback from employees signified that the benefit went over well, he said.

Moves like shutting down the entire office for a week are gaining momentum in part because workers have power in this market, and that’s not changing, Ryan said — not even if a recession hits.

“Anyone who thinks the power dynamic is going to go back, honestly and humbly, I think they are making a mistake,” Ryan said.

That power comes from multiple macro levers that have tightened the available workforce overall, including an aging population, tightened immigration controls and the growing allure of gig work, Ryan said. The question for employers becomes: What are we going to do to change? 

For some, change has meant shifting to a hybrid model of work to better accommodate employees. But even this shift has revealed how easily employers and workers can fall out of step, experts previously told HR Dive. Something seemingly as simple as asking workers to come into the office two days a week can signify a lack of trust in workers and a lack of understanding in how work is done, they said.

PwC is tackling this problem by investing billions in its My+ program, a tech-centered approach to re-imagining the workday at PwC, Ryan said. But how such change will preserve and mold company culture is still a big question for all organizations, he continued.

“We’re all in good company. We’re all struggling with it,” Ryan said. “We know how to build culture one way. … That’s how I learned, that’s how most of my generation learned.” 

Offices were traditional pathways to forming and delivering a company culture, various studies have said. Now that employers are spending less on office space, they have the resources to try other things and “follow the lead of their people,” Ryan said. PwC, for example, has used some of its office money to invest in workers gathering together in other ways.

“The reality is the world has changed,” Ryan said, “and I think it’s for the better.”

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