What Bosses Lost in Fighting Empty Offices: Power

What Barrett Kime’s boss said on a recent video conference was simple. Could his team members at NBCUniversal go work in person the few days they are expected to be in the office?

Then came the revolt. Kime, senior creative director, took the mic off mute. “I was talking about how insane it was to ask people to come more often while Covid-19 cases are on the rise,” he recalled.

Other employees then came forward to share the reasons they didn’t want to go back to the office: childcare, rising fuel prices, number of Covid-19 cases. For Kime, this marked a new phase in their conversations about returning to the workplace.

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

Optimism about plans to return to the office, across industries and cities, is slowly waning. When asked in early 2021 what proportion 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 consultancy Gartner.

Office occupancy across the United States stabilized last month at about 43% as Covid-19 cases surged once again, according to data from security firm Kastle.

The vast majority of Americans, particularly those in the service sector and in low-wage jobs, have been working face-to-face throughout 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 at Gartner. “Even some of the biggest companies that have publicly spoken out saying they want their employees in the office five days a week are starting to backtrack.”

There’s Apple, which recently lifted its requirement that employees come to the office at least three days a week. There’s McKinsey, which intends at some point to establish clearer rules around office attendance, to make sure people understand the importance of face-to-face collaboration, but for now it’s allowing everyone to make deals with their clients and managers, according to their human resources director.

Google has delayed a planned return to the office for January, and now approximately 10% of its employees have been given permission to work remotely at all times or be relocated. At one point, Intuit considered some sort of rigid back-to-the-office plan for its 11,500 US employees, but instead allowed managers and teams to set their own expectations of which days to go to the workplace.

“Being strict creates all sorts of bureaucracy, because then you have to involve the management levels and it becomes very rules-based,” said Sasan Goodarzi, CEO of Intuit. “We don’t believe you have to be in the office 40 hours a week, and we don’t believe it’s possible to be totally virtual.”

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The plans to return to the office have turned out to be a great tug of war in which neither side gives in for fear of appearing cowardly. Executives told workers to return to the workplace, then postponed plans as Covid-19 cases continued to rise.

Business leaders accepted the uncertainty, hoping it was temporary. Until it became clear that it wasn’t. Workers had extra time at home, and extra leeway to test the rigidity of their bosses’ plans. Now, some companies are waiting for their professionals to come back but have lost the power to force it because of the constant flow of deadlines.

“What we decided to do is say, ‘What’s working?’” said Joan Burke, director of human resources at DocuSign, who pushed back four dates to return to the office before deciding not to require an attendance for now. “Let’s learn from what’s working and put safeguards in place when we think they’re not.”

Some executives hope that if they can get their employees to spend time in the office, they’ll realize they enjoy it more than they remember.

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

Now she calls her company “first and foremost remote.” She first considered, without taking it too seriously, the idea of ​​demanding a return to the Cube office, but eventually decided to make that option as attractive as possible. She even relocated the place to New York to make commuting easier for employees who live in Brooklyn.

“People made it clear they didn’t want to go back,” Christina said. “It can end up being disappointing to put so much effort into building an office environment and then not have people coming.”

Some entrepreneurs took a more stern line. Elon Musk, for example, told SpaceX and Tesla employees that they needed to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office or they would be fired. Many other companies, such as Google and Microsoft, have opted for a more lenient strategy, filling workplaces with iced coffee, snacks, gift bags and beer. But these corporate incentives have their limits, and few are willing to experience punishment.

“It’s almost like a current office meme from 2018 – ‘Hey, we’ve got bagels, snacks, and ping pong tables,’” Christina said. “This is not a trade-off for commuting.”

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

Duolingo, a Pittsburgh-based language learning company, required its employees to come to the office three days a week; the company’s director of human resources said he was confident of meeting his hiring goals in the same way. Christiana Riley, CEO of the Americas at Deutsche Bank, said the bank’s decision to require its 5,000 New York employees to return to the workplace full-time or at least two days a week, depending on their role, had significance. that went beyond business, it contributed to the recovery of the city.

Brown-Forman, the wine and spirits company, has asked most of its 950 employees in Louisville, Kentucky, to work at headquarters at least three days a week since last month.

“While Brown-Forman has not seen an exodus because of our return-to-office policies, it is still possible,” said Eric Doninger, director of real estate and workplace strategies, explaining that the company understands the risks of the gamble. . “Our facilities have a role to play in building the business, fostering collaboration and camaraderie.”

Other executives are pushing for a comeback with all their might, confident of the cost-effectiveness of having professionals at their desks five days a week. Tom Siebel, CEO of C3 AI, an artificial intelligence company with 800 employees, required his workers to return to the office full-time in June 2021. He said the requirement only increased the company’s interest in a certain type of job candidate. .

“For people who want to work from home over Zoom, there are companies for 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 didn’t invent rockets that land on their own with people working via Zoom once a week,” the CEO added. “We have to get together in a room, use whiteboards and fail, and fail and fail until we succeed.”

But for executives who haven’t redoubled their efforts on that gamble, bigger questions loom over the future of their offices. As in the case of Manny Medina, CEO of Outreach, an AI-powered sales company with about 600 employees in Seattle, most of whom are encouraged to spend 40% of their time face-to-face. In an almost empty office, Medina said he was used to facing challenges from employees about the importance of face-to-face collaboration.

Recently, a junior employee came to the CEO’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, ‘Good point, and you should think about what your priority is,’” Medina said. “If you want to be an MMA fighter, go do it.”

Medina has been a supporter of the office for years. He was once invited to participate in a debate on the advantages of face-to-face work versus remote work with the CEO of Zapier in front of thousands of people. Most of those present agreed with his opponent. “I took the losing part of the conversation,” Medina said. “But it wasn’t like I lost to a landslide.”

That discussion took place in 2017. Five years later, it’s still not over. “There’s a fried chicken joint near the office that I only eat when I’m at work,” Medina added. “I see the sea from my office. Why wouldn’t I come work here?” / TRANSLATION OF ROMINA CACIA

About Yadunandan Singh

Born in 1992, Yadunandan approaches the world of video games thanks to two sacred monsters like Diablo and above all Sonic, strictly in the Sega Saturn version. Ranging between consoles and PCs, he is particularly fond of platform titles and RPGs, not disdaining all other genres and moving in the constant search for the perfect balance between narration and interactivity.

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