What Barrett Kime’s boss said on the recent video call was simple. Could members of his team at NBCUniversal show up on the few days of the week that they were expected to be in the office?
A rebellion ensued. Mr. Kime, a senior creative director, broke his silence. “He was talking about how crazy it was to ask people to come more often with the Covid rage,” he recalled.
Other employees then chimed in to share reasons they didn’t want to go back to the office: childcare, rising gas prices, Covid-19 fees. For Mr. Kime, it marked a new phase in his back-to-office talks.
“It’s kind of a Wizard of Oz thing,” Kime said. In other words, his team realized that there was no almighty being compelling his assistance; there was just a 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 minute we started going, we realized how silly that was,” she added.
Optimism about return-to-the-office plans, across industries and cities, is slowly fading. When asked in early 2021 about the proportion of their workers who would return to the office five days a week going forward, executives said 50 percent; now that percentage has dropped to 20, according to a recent survey by the consulting firm Gartner. Office occupancy across the country stabilized last month at around 43 percent as Covid cases rose again, according to data from Kastle, a security firm.
The vast majority of Americans, particularly those in the service sector and in low-wage jobs, have been working in person during the pandemic. But those who were able to work remotely stuck to flexibility. In a January survey, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of workers whose jobs can be done at home wanted to work remotely most or all of the time.
“What is very clear is that fewer and fewer companies expect 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 major companies that said we want our employees to be in the office five days a week are starting to back down.”
There’s Apple, which recently lifted its requirement that employees return to the office at least three days a week. There’s McKinsey, which at some point intends to set clearer rules on office attendance, with the goal of ensuring that people get the value of in-person collaboration, but for now it allows people to make agreements with their clients and managers, according to his head of human resources.
Google postponed its planned January return to the office, and now about 10 percent of its employees have been given permission to go fully remote or relocate. Intuit had at one point 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 for what days to come in.
“Being prescriptive creates all kinds of bureaucracy, because then you have to involve management levels and it all becomes very rule-based,” said Sasan Goodarzi, CEO of Intuit. “We don’t think you have to be in the office 40 hours a week, and we don’t think you can be all virtual either.”
RTO plans have developed like a giant game of chicken. Executives told workers to return to the office, then delayed 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 room to test the rigidity of their bosses’ plans. Now, some companies are hoping people will come back, but have lost the clout to enforce that because of constantly changing deadlines.
“What we decided to do is say, ‘What’s working?’” said Joan Burke, DocuSign’s head of human resources, who postponed four return-to-office dates before deciding not to require assistance for now. “Let’s learn from what works and put up barriers if we think things don’t work.”
A new office culture
The last two years have changed the way we work in profound ways.
Some executives hope that if they can get their employees to spend some time in the office, the workers will find that they liked it more than they remembered.
Christina Ross, CEO 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 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 briefly toyed with the idea of requiring a return to Cube’s office, but decided instead to make it as tempting an option as possible. She even moved to the New York location to make it easier for staff who live in Brooklyn to commute to work.
“People voted with their feet to not necessarily go back,” Ross said. “It can be disappointing to put a lot of effort into building the office environment and then not have people come in.”
Some business leaders have taken a harder line. Elon Musk, for example, told employees at SpaceX and Tesla that they would have to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office or be fired. Many others, like Google and Microsoft, have taken a softer tack by filling their workplaces with cold drinks, snacks, bags and beer. But those corporate carrots have their limits, and few are willing to try the sticks.
“Now it’s almost like a 2018 office meme: ‘Hey, we’ve got bagels and sandwiches and ping-pong tables,'” Ross said. “That’s not compensation for a trip.”
Many companies are accepting the reality that requiring a return to the office could 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, not the norm.
Duolingo, the Pittsburgh-based language learning company, required its employees to return three days a week; the company’s human resources chief said he was confident he would meet his hiring goals anyway. Christiana Riley, chief executive officer for 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 a meaning beyond the business. in her contribution to the recovery of the city. Brown-Forman, the wine and spirits company, called most of its 950 corporate employees in Louisville, Ky., back to headquarters at least three days a week starting last month.
“While Brown-Forman hasn’t seen an exodus due to our return-to-office policies, we could,” said Eric Doninger, director of real estate and workforce strategies, explaining that the company has made its peace with the risks. “Our facilities have a role to play in building the business, in developing collaboration and camaraderie.”
Other executives are insisting on a full comeback, confident in the value of having people at their desks five days a week. Tom Siebel, CEO of C3 AI, an 800-person artificial intelligence company, required his workers to return to the office full time last June. He said the requirement had only made the company more attractive to a certain type of job applicant.
“For people who want to work at home with Zoom, there are companies that are like that,” he said. “Go work for Facebook. Go work for Salesforce.”
Mr. Siebel said he had “the only full parking lot in Silicon Valley” and sees that as a competitive advantage. “We don’t invent rockets that people who work on Zoom calls once a week land on their own,” the CEO added. “We have to get together in a room and get up on whiteboards and fail and fail and fail until you succeed.”
But for executives who haven’t duplicated, the biggest questions loom over the future of their offices. Take for example Manny Medina, CEO of Outreach, an AI 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 nearly empty office, Medina said he had gotten used to challenges from employees about the value of in-person collaboration.
A junior employee recently attended the CEO’s virtual office hours and said he didn’t understand why he should have to travel when working from home allowed him to balance productivity with his social life and jujitsu training.
“I told him, ‘It’s a fair point, and you need to think about what your priority is,’” Mr. Medina said. “If you want to be an MMA fighter, go for it.”
Mr. Medina has been fighting for the job for years. He was once asked to debate Zapier’s CEO in front of thousands of people about the merits of office versus remote work. Most of the audience members voted for his opponent.
“I took the losing end of the conversation,” Medina said. “But it wasn’t like I lost in a landslide.”
That discussion was in 2017. Five years later, it is not over. “There is a fried chicken restaurant near the office that I only go to when I am in the office,” added Mr. Medina. “I can see the ocean from my office. Why wouldn’t I do that?”