Seeking to return to the offices, the presidents lost their influence

What Barrett boss Kim said in the last video call was clear. Could his NBCUniversal team members show up on the few days of the week they were actually expected to be in the office?

A rebellion ensued. the master. Kime, one of the top creative directors, took himself away from the silence. “I was talking about how crazy it is to ask people to come so often with Covid,” he recalls.

Then other employees jumped in to share their reasons for not wanting to go back to the office: child care, high gas prices, Covid-19 rates. the master. Kime, it marked a new stage in back-to-office talks.

“He’s kind of the Wizard of Oz,” Mr. Kim said. In other words, his team realized that no powerful being would force them to attend; There was only a 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 time we started, we realized how ridiculous it was.”

Optimism about plans to return to the office, across industries and cities, is slowly waning. When asked in early 2021 what percentage of their workers would return to the office five days a week in the future, 50 percent of executives said; Now that percentage is down to 20, according to a recent survey by consultancy Gartner. Office occupancy across the country held steady last month at around 43 percent as Covid cases rose again, according to data from Kastle, a security company.

The vast majority of Americans, especially those in the service sector and low-paying jobs, have been self-employed throughout the pandemic. But those who were able to work remotely were associated with flexibility. In a January survey, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of workers who can get their jobs done at home want to work remotely most of the time or all the time.

“What is quite clear is that there are fewer and fewer companies expecting their employees to be in the office five days a week,” said Brian Krupp, vice president of human resources practices 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 pull back.”

There’s Apple, which recently suspended its requirement that employees return to the office at least three days a week. There’s McKinsey, which at one point intends to set clearer standards around office attendance, with the goal of ensuring 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 its head of human resources.

Google has postponed its planned return to the office in January, and nearly 10 percent of its employees have now received permission to telecommute or relocate entirely. Intuit at one point contemplated some sort of strict back-to-office plan for its 11,500 American employees, but instead allowed managers and teams to set their own expectations of what days they should go.

“Being directive creates all kinds of bureaucracy, because then you have to involve the layers of management and it becomes very rule-based,” said Sasan Godarzi, CEO of Intuit. “We don’t think you should be in the office 40 hours a week, and we also don’t think you can all be virtual.”

RTO’s plans unfolded like a giant chicken game. Executives told workers to return to the office, then postponed their plans as Covid cases continued to rise. Business leaders accepted the uncertainty, hoping it was temporary. Until it turned out that it was not. Workers got extra time at home, and extra space to test the solidity of their bosses’ plans. Now some companies are expecting people to come back but have lost leverage to enforce it due to the constant influx of deadlines.

“What we decided to do was say, ‘What works? “Let’s learn from what works and put in place firewalls if we think things are not.”

Some executives hope that if they can convince their employees to spend time in the office, workers will realize 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 assistant. Before the pandemic, she hired an engineer who lives in Texas and insisted on moving to New York for work. You couldn’t imagine building a long-term relationship with an employee you hadn’t met in person before.

Now she calls her company “remote control first”. She pondered briefly the idea of ​​demanding a return to Cube’s office, but decided instead to make it as tempting a choice as possible. It even moved the New York site to make it easier to navigate for employees who live in Brooklyn.

“People voted with their feet not necessarily in return,” said Ms. Ross said. “It can be disappointing to put so much effort into building an office environment and then not have people present.”

Some business leaders have taken a more hardline approach. For example, Elon Musk told SpaceX and Tesla employees that they will have to spend at least 40 hours in the office or they will be fired. Many others, such as Google and Microsoft, have opted for a softer approach by filling their premises with cold brew, snacks, handbags, and beer. But these corporate carrots have their limitations, and few are willing to try the sticks.

“It’s almost like a meme now for the 2018 office — ‘Hey, we have bread and snacks and ping-pong tables,'” Ross said. “This is not a trade-off for mobility.”

Many companies accept the fact that demanding 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 has become an exotic rather than a norm.

Duolingo, a Pittsburgh-based language-learning company, has asked its employees to come back three days a week; The company’s head of human resources said he’s confident the hiring goals will be met along the same lines. Christiana Riley, chief executive for the Americas at Deutsche Bank, said her company’s decision to require its 5,000 New York employees to return to the office either full-time or at least two days a week, depending on their role, had significance outside of work. itself in its contribution to the recovery of the city. Brown Foreman, the wine and spirits company, has recalled most of its 950 employees in Louisville, Kentucky, to return to headquarters at least three days a week starting last month.

Explaining that the company has made peace with risk, Eric Doninger, director of real estate and workplace strategies, said, “Although Brown Furman has not experienced mass exodus due to back-to-office policies, we can.” “Our facilities have a role to play in building business and building cooperation and camaraderie.”

Other executives are insisting on a full return, confident in the value of having people in their offices five days a week. Tom Seibel, CEO of C3 AI, an artificial intelligence company of 800 people, asked his workers to return to the office full time last June. He said the requirement only made the company more attractive to a certain type of applicant.

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

the master. Siebel said he has “the only full parking lot in Silicon Valley” and sees that as a competitive advantage. “We don’t create self-falling missiles by people working on Zoom calls once a week,” the CEO added. “We have to gather in a room and sit on the whiteboard and fail and fail and fail in order to succeed.”

But for executives who haven’t doubled down, bigger questions loom about the future of their offices. Take, for example, Manny Medina, CEO of Outreach, an AI-powered sales company with nearly 600 employees in Seattle, most of whom are encouraged to spend 40% of their working time in the office. From a mostly empty office, mr. Medina said he used to face challenges from employees about the value of personal collaboration.

Recently, a junior employee attended the CEO’s virtual office hours and said he didn’t understand why he was required to commute when working from home, which allowed him to balance productivity with his social life and jiu-jitsu training.

‘Fair point,’ said I, ‘and you should consider what your priority is,’ said Mr. Medina said. “If you want to be an MMA fighter, do it.”

the master. Medina has been fighting for the office for years. He was once asked to discuss the CEO of Zapier in front of thousands of people about the advantages of working in the office versus working remotely. The majority of audience members voted for his opponent.

“I have taken the losing end of the conversation,” Mr. Medina said. “But it wasn’t like I lost in the erosion.”

That argument was in 2017. Five years later, it’s not over. “There is a fried chicken restaurant near the office that I only get when I am in the office,” said Mr. Medina added. “I can see the ocean from my desk. Why don’t I do that?”

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