Seeking a return to offices, bosses have lost leverage

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

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

Other employees then stepped in to share the reasons they didn’t want to return to the office: childcare, rising gas prices, Covid-19 rates. For Mr. Kime, it marked a new phase in their conversations back at the office.

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

Optimism about return-to-work plans, across industries and cities, is slowly waning. Asked in early 2021 what share of their employees would be back in 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 consulting firm Gartner. Office occupancy across the country plateaued last month at around 43% as Covid cases rose again, according to data from Kastle, a security firm.

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

“What’s abundantly 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 Gartner’s human resources practice. “Even some of the big companies that said ‘We want our people in the office five days a week’ are starting to back down.”

There’s Apple, which recently suspended its requirement for employees to return to the office at least three days a week. There’s McKinsey, which at some point intends to set clearer standards around office presence, with the goal of making sure people get the value of in-person collaboration, but to instant, it enables individuals to strike deals with their clients and managers, according to its Director of Human Resources.

Google postponed its return to the office scheduled for January, and so far about 10% of its employees have been given permission to move completely remotely or relocate. Intuit had at one point considered some sort of rigid return-to-work plan for its 11,500 U.S. employees, but instead allowed managers and teams to set their own expectations for the days ahead.

“Being prescriptive creates all kinds of bureaucracy because then you have to involve the layers of management and it just becomes very rules-based,” said Sasan Goodarzi, Intuit’s chief executive. “We don’t believe you have to be in the office 40 hours a week, nor do we believe you can be fully virtual.”

The RTO plans played out like a giant game of chicken. Executives told workers to come back to the office, then delayed their plans as Covid cases continued to climb. Business leaders accepted the uncertainty, hoping it was temporary. Until it’s clear no. Workers were given more time at home and extra leeway to test the rigidity of their bosses’ plans. Now, some companies are waiting for people to come back, but have lost the power to enforce that due to the constant stream of deadlines.

“What we decided to do was say, ‘What works?'” said Joan Burke, human resources manager at DocuSign, who rescheduled four return-to-office dates before decide not to require attendance at this time. “Let’s learn from what works and put safeguards in place if we think things aren’t working.”

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

Christina Ross, chief executive of Cube, a software company with 75 employees, considered herself a proud sidekick to the office. 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 had never met in person.

Now she calls her business “remote first.” She briefly toyed with the idea of ​​demanding a return to Cube’s office, but instead decided to make it as appealing an option as possible. It even moved the New York site to make it easier for staff living in Brooklyn to travel.

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

Some business leaders have taken a harder line. Elon Musk, for example, told SpaceX and Tesla employees that they should spend at least 40 hours in the office or risk being fired. Many others, like Google and Microsoft, have taken a softer approach by filling their workplaces with cold brew, snacks, tote 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 office of 2018 – ‘Hey, we’ve got bagels and snacks and ping pong tables,'” Ms Ross said. “It’s not a compromise for a ride.”

Many companies accept the reality that demanding a return to the office could put them at odds with their peers and mean losing talent. In some industries and parts of the country, an office-centric culture is becoming an oddity, not a norm.

Duolingo, the Pittsburgh-based language-learning company, required its employees to come back three days a week; The company’s human resources manager said he was confident he would meet his hiring goals all the same. Christiana Riley, managing director of the Americas at Deutsche Bank, said her company’s decision to require its 5,000 New York employees to be back in the office full-time or at least two days a week, depending on their role. , had a significance beyond the company in its contribution to the recovery of the city. Brown-Forman, the wine and spirits company, recalled most of its 950 employees in Louisville, Ky., to headquarters at least three days a week starting last month.

“While Brown-Forman hasn’t experienced 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 make peace with the risks. “Our facilities have a role to play in growing the business, in building collaboration and camaraderie.”

Other executives insist on a comeback, convinced of the value of having people in their offices five days a week. Tom Siebel, chief executive of C3 AI, an 800-person artificial intelligence company, demanded that its employees return to the office full-time last June. He said the requirement only made the company more attractive 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.

Mr Siebel said he has “the only full parking lot in Silicon Valley” and sees this as a competitive advantage. “We’re not inventing 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 get on whiteboards and fail and fail and fail until you succeed.”

But for executives who haven’t doubled down, bigger questions hang over the future of their offices. Take Manny Medina, chief executive of Outreach, an artificial intelligence 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 near-empty office, Medina said he’s grown accustomed to challenging employees about the value of in-person collaboration.

Recently, a junior employee attended the general manager’s virtual office hours and said he couldn’t understand why he should have to commute when working from home allowed him to balance productivity with his social life. and his training in jujitsu.

“I said, ‘Right, and you should think about your priority,'” Mr Medina said. “If you want to be an MMA fighter, go for it.”

Mr. Medina has been fighting for the office for years. He was once asked to debate the CEO of Zapier in front of thousands of people about the merits of the office versus remote working. The majority of spectators voted for his opponent.

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

This dispute dates back to 2017. Five years later, it’s not over. “There’s a fried chicken joint near the desk that I only get when I’m in the office,” Mr Medina added. “I can see the ocean from my office. Why wouldn’t I do that?

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