Workplace engagement hits new low; Google in war of words with contractors

In this week's HR news round-up: In 2023 engagement levels dipped dramatically; US Bank issues a RTO mandate; most workers witness incivility at work, plus lots more:

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Mar 7, 2024

Workplace engagement hits new low

Overall employee engagement fell to just 33% for 2023, according to new data published by Gallup – which continues to present a mixed picture of employee engagement in recent years. Although the latest figures are down compared to 2020, it is higher than any reading between 2000 to 2015. Gallup finds that during last year, employees who were either ‘not engaged’ or those who were ‘actively disengaged,’ cost the US economy $1.9 trillion in lost productivity. Each percentage gain or drop in engagement represents approximately 1.6 million full- or part-time employees in the US. Commenting on the data, Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup, said: “We need to get [work] right if we want to get our lives right.” He added: “There was an encouraging decade of engagement growth. We’ve taken a step back, but it can be fixed.” Amongst the different generations, baby boomers were the only cadre more engaged (up two percentage points to 36%). Only 31% of Gen X are engaged (down four percentage points); while engagement amongst millennials fell from 39% to 32%. It found only 35% of Gen Z are engaged. Harter said: “The decline is concerning because younger workers want to work for an organization with a purpose they can connect with and one where they have great chances to develop.”

Move to digitization sees Santander lay off 320 workers

Spanish bank, Santander, has blamed increasing digitization across the business for prompting a reduction in its US headcount by 320. The job losses represent around 2.5% of its 13,489 employees in America, and it said they came about as part of its shift towards digital banking services. In a statement it said: ““This strategic realignment necessitated adjustments to our staffing model, affecting a modest proportion of our branch staff.” It added: “These changes are integral to Santander’s strategic plan to introduce a fully integrated digital banking platform in the United States.” Santander has a strategic ambition to debut a fully digital platform in the United States this summer, targeting both consumer and commercial sectors. Santander’s US segment is now the fifth-largest within the group. For the year 2023, the US division experienced a 48% decrease in net profit, dropping to 932 million euros. The downturn was driven by a 49% increase in provisions, underscoring the financial pressures and operational hurdles faced by the bank in this key market.

War of words brews between Google and contract workers

A group of 49 YouTube Music contractors have claimed they were laid off en-masse (and without warning), at a weekly team meeting, sparking an immediate war of words. For Google has hit back, claiming the workers are not their employees, but instead work for Cognizant – which is partnered with Google as part of a dedicated Google Cloud Business Group. It a statement, Google said: “As we’ve shared before, these are not Google employees. Cognizant is responsible for these workers’ employment terms, including staffing. As is the case here, contracts with our suppliers across the company routinely end on their natural expiry date, which was agreed to with Cognizant.” This latest episode appears to be another installment of a year-long dispute between the two parties. Last year the contractors voted to join the Alphabet Worker’s Union, to complain against minimal benefits, low pay, and a return-to-office order. A ruling by the US National Labor Relations Board in January this year said that Google’s refusal to bargain with the workers was illegal. A statement from the union reads: “The layers of subcontracting are a mechanism by which Google distances itself from its responsibilities to its workers … The NLRB found that Google has control over workers and their working conditions and is thus obligated to directly negotiate with their union.”

US Bank mandates in-office working for at least three days a week…

In proof that return-to-office (RTO) mandates show no sign of abating, comes the news that Minneapolis-based US Bank is requiring that all staff must now work in the office for at least three days a week (with adherence to this rule now included in annual performance reviews). In a memo sent to workers, US Bank said would be creating 24 hub cities with the requirement that employees who live within 30 miles of the cities are required to come into the office. The company will invest in these hub offices and provide upgrades at these locations. Remote workers have been given a months’ notice to start making the transition. In a statement the bank said: “We understand this may feel like a major change, and we appreciate that it will take time to adjust [but] please work with your manager to set a reasonable path forward.” The bank previously announced in November 2022 that it planned to reintroduce more on-site work into its model as the nation adapts to the pandemic. At the time, US Bank said that while its performance was strong with employees working remotely, “collaboration” and “engagement” was suffering. Wells Fargo had already asked its employees to return to the office at least three times a week.

…as data finds workers are putting more distance between where they live and the office

Could employees be resorting to desperate measures in order to defy return-to-office mandates – by moving as far away from it as possible? New research finds white collar workers are now living nearly three times as far away from the office as they used to before the Covid-19 pandemic. The study, by economists at Stanford and payroll provider, Gusto, finds the average distance between people’s homes and workplaces rose to 27 miles during 2023 – up from the 10 miles recorded in 2019 – nearly triple the distance. Moreover, the share of people who live more than 50 miles from where they work rose seven-fold during the pandemic, climbing from 0.8% in 2019 to 5.5% in 2023. The workers moving away from the office are typically those in their 30s and 40s, who have young children and may want larger homes, rather than those in their 20s and 60s. A small portion of the workforce (12% now, compared with the 50% at the peak of Covid-19 lockdowns), are still able to work entirely remotely. Some chose to leave pricey housing markets like San Francisco or New York in favor of new hometowns, sometimes called “Zoom towns.

Most workers see incivility in the workplace:

New research suggests two-thirds of US workers have either experienced or witnessed incivility in their workplace over the past month. The data – from SHRM – reveals workers who rate their workplace as uncivil are three times more likely to express job dissatisfaction (28%); and more than twice as likely (38%), to consider leaving their job in the coming year. It also found 33% of US workers expect workplace conflict to increase over the next 12 months. Commenting on the findings, Johnny Taylor, Jr, SHRM President and CEO said: “If we want to build a world of work that works for all, we need more than corporate objectives. Civility is inclusion in action, and must be carried out by the people in their daily interactions. He added: “Looking forward, the future of work hinges on collaboration, ideation, and innovation, with civility serving as the indispensable catalyst for bridging discord and empowering workforce synergy.” The research comes as SHRM challenges workplaces to engage in 1 million civil conversations this year.

Amazon says it can’t investigate misconduct for fear of violating labor law

In an extreme case of the law of unintended consequences, Amazon is claiming it is unable to investigate allegations of internal misconduct due to the risk of it violating labor laws. The issue was being highlighted by one of its senior company lawyers. Speaking at a legal conference this week, Lee Langston, Amazon’s corporate counsel for business conduct and ethics said: ““More aggression from the National Labor Relations Board “particularly impacts internal investigations where it could theoretically touch on protected concerted activity.” Speaking at an American Bar Association event in San Francisco he added: “That’s something that definitely comes up, even in deciding whether to investigate something now at the very early stage is, ‘Is this a topic that even if this is something that violates our internal policies, do we want to take on the labor risk associated with this?’” His comments come as Amazon last month responded to an NLRB regional office complaint accusing the online retail giant of violating labor law by alleging the agency is unconstitutional.

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