Seeking a return to offices, bosses lost leverage

Seeking a return to offices, bosses lost leverage

Seeking a return to offices, bosses lost leverage

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

An uprising arose. Mr. Kime, a senior creative director, opened his mouth. “I was talking about how insane asking people to come in more often while Covid is raging,” he recalls.

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

“It’s sort of a Wizard of Oz thing,” Mr. Kime said. In other words, his team realized there was no omnipotent being forcing their presence; there was only a man behind a curtain (or zoom screen). “As much as we grumbled that we had to go back to work, we all understood it was going to happen. But the second we started going, we realized how silly it was,” he added.

Optimism about return to office plans in all sectors and cities is slowly fading. When asked in early 2021 about the proportion of their employees who would be back in the office five days a week in the future, executives said 50 percent; now that percentage has dropped to 20, according to a recent survey by the consulting firm Gartner. According to data from Kastle, a security firm, office occupancy across the country hit a plateau of about 43 percent last month as Covid cases spiked again.

The vast majority of Americans, especially those in the service sector and low-paying jobs, have worked personally during the pandemic. But those who could work remotely grew attached to the flexibility. In a January survey, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of employees whose work can be done from home wanted to work remotely most or all of the time.

“What’s obvious is that fewer and fewer companies expect their employees to be in the office five days a week,” said Brian Kropp, vice president of HR at Gartner. “Even some of the big companies that came out and said we want our employees in the office five days a week are starting to back down.”

There’s Apple, which recently suspended the requirement that employees return to the office at least three days a week. There’s McKinsey, who plans at some point to establish clearer standards around office attendance, aiming to ensure people get the value of personal collaboration, but for now it allows individuals to make agreements with their customers and managers, according to his head of human resources.

Google has delayed its return to the office, scheduled for January, and now about 10 percent of its employees have been allowed to go completely remote or relocate. Intuit had at one point considered some sort of rigid return-to-office plan for its 11,500 U.S. employees, but instead let managers and teams set their own expectations of which days to go into.

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

RTO plans have unfolded like a giant chicken game. Executives told employees to come back to the office and then postponed their plans as the number of Covid cases continued to rise. Business leaders accepted the uncertainty, hoping it was temporary. Until it became clear that wasn’t the case. Employees were given extra time at home and extra leeway to test the rigidity of their bosses’ plans. Now some companies expect people back but have lost the power to enforce it because of the constant flow of deadlines.

“What we decided to do is say, ‘What works?’” said Joan Burke, Human Resources at DocuSign, who postponed four return to office dates before deciding not to require attendance for the time being. “Let’s learn from what works and put up crash barriers when we think it doesn’t.”

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

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

Now she calls her company ‘remote first’. She toyed with the idea of ​​going back to Cube’s office for a while, but decided to make it as appealing as possible instead. She even moved to the New York location to make commuting easier for the staff living in Brooklyn.

“People voted with their feet in it and didn’t necessarily come back,” Ms Ross said. “It can be disappointing to put a lot of energy into building the office environment and then no people come in.”

Some business leaders have taken a harder line. For example, Elon Musk told SpaceX and Tesla employees that they would have to spend at least 40 hours in the office or be fired. Many others, such as Google and Microsoft, have taken a gentler approach by filling their workplaces with cold brew, snacks, tote bags and beer. But those corporate roots have their limits, and few are willing to try the sticks.

“It’s almost a 2018 office meme now – ‘Hey, we’ve got bagels and snacks and ping pong tables,'” said Ms. Ross. “That’s not a compromise for commuting.”

Many companies accept the reality that going back to the office can put them at odds with their colleagues and mean they miss out on talent. In some industries and in some parts of the country, an office culture is becoming a quirk, not a norm.

Duolingo, the language learning company based in Pittsburgh, demanded that its employees return three days a week; the company’s human resources chief said it was confident it would meet its recruiting goals. Christiana Riley, chief executive 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 position, matters. was out of business. herself in her contribution to the recovery of the city. Brown-Forman, the wine and spirits company, called most of its 950 company employees in Louisville, Ky., back to headquarters at least three days a week as of 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 the company has come to terms with the risks. “Our facilities play a role in building the business, building collaboration and camaraderie.”

Other executives are pushing for a full return, convinced of the value of having people at their desks five days a week. Tom Siebel, chief executive of C3 AI, an 800-strong artificial intelligence company, last June demanded that its employees return to the office full-time. He said the requirement only increased the company’s appeal to a certain type of applicant.

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

Siebel said he had “the only full parking lot in Silicon Valley” and sees that as a competitive advantage. “We’re not inventing rockets that land themselves by people working on Zoom conversations once a week,” the CEO added. “We have to get together in a room and go on whiteboards and fail and fail and fail until you succeed.”

But for executives who haven’t doubled down yet, bigger questions loom 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 percent of their work time in the office. From a largely empty office, Mr. Medina that he had become accustomed to answering employee questions about the value of personal collaboration.

Recently, a junior employee attended the chief executive’s virtual office hours and said he didn’t understand why he would have to commute when working from home, allowing him to combine productivity with his social life and jiu-jitsu training.

“I said, ‘Fair point, and you have to think about what your priority is,'” said Mr. Medina. “If you want to be an MMA fighter, go do it.”

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

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

That fight was in 2017. Five years later, it’s not over. “There is a roast chicken joint near the office that I only get when I’m in the office,” added Mr. Medina to it. “I can see the ocean from my office. Why shouldn’t I?”