Seeking a return to the offices, bosses lost leverage

What Barrett Kime’s boss said in the recent video call was blunt. Could his team members at NBCUniversal show up on the few days of the week they were supposed to be in the office?

Rebellion followed. Kime, a senior creative director, was silent. “I was talking about how insane it was to ask people to come more often with Covid raging,” he recalled.

Other employees then came in to share the reasons they didn’t want to go back to the office: day care, rising gas prices, Covid-19 rates. For Kime, this marked a new phase in their back-to-office conversations.

“It’s kind of a Wizard of Oz thing,” Kime said. In other words, her team realized that there was no almighty being forcing her presence; there was only one man behind a curtain (or Zoom screen). “As much as we grumbled about going back to work, we all knew it was going to happen. But the second we started, we realized how silly it was,” she added.

Optimism about plans to return to the office, across industries and cities, is slowly waning. When asked in early 2021 about the proportion of their employees who would return to the office five days a week in the future, executives said 50%; now that percentage has dropped to 20, according to a recent survey by consultancy Gartner. Office occupancy across the country stabilized last month at about 43% as Covid cases surged again, according to data from Kastle, a security firm.

The vast majority of Americans, particularly those in the service sector and low-wage jobs, have been working personally during the pandemic. But those who were able to work remotely clung to flexibility. In a January survey, the Pew Research Center found that 60% of workers whose jobs can be done from home wanted to work remotely most or all of the time.

“What’s pretty clear is that there are fewer and fewer companies expecting their employees to be in the office five days a week,” said Brian Kropp, vice president of human resources practice at Gartner. “Even some of the top companies that have said we want our employees in the office five days a week are starting to back off.”

There’s Apple, which recently lifted its requirement that employees return to the office at least three days a week. There’s McKinsey, which intends at some point to set clearer norms around office attendance to ensure people get the value of in-person collaboration, but for now it’s allowing individuals to make agreements with their clients and managers, according to their Head of Human Resources.

Google has delayed its planned return to the office in January, and now about 10% of its employees have been allowed to go fully remote or relocate. At one point, Intuit considered some sort of rigid back-to-office plan for its 11,500 US employees, but instead allowed managers and teams to set their own expectations of which days to go in.

“Being prescriptive creates all kinds of bureaucracy, because you have to involve layers of management and it becomes very rules-based,” said Sasan Goodarzi, chief executive of Intuit. “We don’t believe you have to be in the office 40 hours a week, and we don’t believe you can be fully virtual either.”

The RTO plans unfolded like a giant chicken game. Executives told workers to return to the office and postponed their plans as Covid cases continued to rise. Business leaders accepted the uncertainty, hoping it was temporary. Until it became clear that it wasn’t. Workers had more time at home and more freedom to test the rigidity of their bosses’ plans. Now some companies are waiting for people to come back but have lost the strength to enforce it because of the constant flow of deadlines.

“What we’ve decided to do is say, ‘What’s working?’” said Joan Burke, head of human resources at DocuSign, who pushed back four dates to return to the office before deciding not to require an attendance for now. “We’ll learn from what’s working and put up guardrails if we think things aren’t.”

Some executives hope that if they can get their employees to spend some time in the office, employees will realize they enjoyed it more than they remembered.

Christina Ross, chief executive of Cube, a software company with 75 employees, used to consider herself a proud office acolyte. Before the pandemic, she hired an engineer who lived in Texas and insisted he move to New York for work. She couldn’t imagine building a long-term relationship with an employee she’d never met in person.

Now she calls her company “remote first”. She briefly toyed with the idea of ​​demanding a return to Cube’s office, but decided to make it as attractive an option as possible. She even moved the location from New York to make commuting easier for employees who live in Brooklyn.

“People voted with their feet not to necessarily come back,” Ross said. “It can be disappointing to put a lot of effort into building the office environment and then not have people coming in.”

Some business leaders have taken a harder line. Elon Musk, for example, told SpaceX and Tesla employees that they would have to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office or they would be fired. Many others, like Google and Microsoft, have taken a softer approach, filling their workplaces with cold beer, snacks, bags and beer. But these corporate carrots have their limits, and few are willing to try the sticks.

“It’s almost like a meme now from the 2018 office – ‘Hey, we’ve got bagels and snacks and ping pong tables,’” Ross said. “This is not an exchange for a trip.”

Many companies are coming to terms with the reality that demanding a return to the office can put them at odds with their peers and mean losing talent. In some industries and in some areas of the country, an office-centric culture is becoming a quirk rather than a norm.

Duolingo, a Pittsburgh-based language learning company, required its employees to come back three days a week; the company’s head of human resources said he was confident of meeting his hiring goals in the same way. Christiana Riley, chief executive of the Americas at Deutsche Bank, said her company’s decision to require its 5,000 New York employees to return to the office full-time or at least two days a week, depending on their role, had meaning beyond of business. in its contribution to the recovery of the city. Brown-Forman, the wine and spirits company, has called most of its 950 corporate employees in Louisville, Kentucky, back to headquarters at least three days a week starting last month.

“While Brown-Forman hasn’t seen an exodus because of our back-to-office policies, we could,” said Eric Doninger, director of real estate and workplace strategies, explaining that the company has made peace with risk. . “Our facilities have a role to play in building the business, in building collaboration and camaraderie.”

Other executives are insisting on a full-throttle return, confident in the value of having people at their desks five days a week. Tom Siebel, chief executive of C3 AI, an 800-person artificial intelligence company, required his employees to return to the office full-time last June. He said the requirement only increased the company’s appeal to a certain type of job seeker.

“For people who want to work from home on Zoom, there are companies that are like that,” he said. “Go work for Facebook. Go work for Salesforce.”

Siebel said it had “the only full parking lot in Silicon Valley” and sees that as a competitive advantage. “We don’t invent rockets that land by people working on Zoom calls once a week,” the chief executive added. “We have to get together in a room and climb on whiteboards and fail and fail and fail until you succeed.”

But for the executives who didn’t bend, bigger questions loom over the future of their offices. Take Manny Medina, chief executive of Outreach, an AI sales company with about 600 employees in Seattle, most of whom are encouraged to spend 40% of their work time in the office. From a virtually empty office, Medina said he’s become accustomed to facing employee challenges about the value of personal collaboration.

Recently, a junior employee came to the chief executive’s virtual office hours and said he didn’t understand why he should be compelled to commute when working from home allowed him to balance productivity with his social life and jiu-jitsu training.

“I said, ‘It’s fair, and you should think about what your priority is,'” Medina said. “If you want to be an MMA fighter, go do it.”

Mr. Medina has been fighting for the job for years. He was once invited to debate the chief executive of Zapier in front of thousands of people on the merits of office versus remote work. The majority of audience members voted for their opponent.

“I accepted the losing side of the conversation,” Medina said. “But it wasn’t like I got lost in a landslide.”

That discussion was in 2017. Five years later, it’s still not over. “There’s a fried chicken joint near the office that I only get when I’m at the office,” Medina added. “I can see the ocean from my office. Why wouldn’t I do that?”

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