Even tech companies that were once champions of remote work are changing their approach. Zoom, whose videoconferencing tool helped enable a quick transition to remote work during the pandemic, recently required employees who live within 50 miles of a Zoom office to start attending at least twice a week. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, recently revised its return-to-office policy, telling employees they could face termination if they didn’t show up at least three days a week starting Sept. 5.
At Amazon, remote workers must decide whether to switch to or quit their jobs, with some facing a much higher cost of living. In a recent meeting, CEO Andy Jassy was blunt: If you can’t commit to going back to the office three days a week, Jassy said, “it probably won’t work for you at Amazon.”
New directions for in-person work represent a significant shift, as executives directly acknowledge the challenges the model faces — in some cases saying productivity has fallen, and citing fewer opportunities for spontaneous collaboration, mentoring, and building connections. On the other hand, employers have new leverage as the labor market slows down, leaving workers with less choice.
“The pendulum has shifted from employees having all the power,” said Matt Cohen, founder and managing partner of Ripple Ventures, a Toronto venture fund that works with early-stage companies across North America. The bulk of the start The founders he works with require employees to be in their office a few days a week, though there is opposition.
“During the pandemic, a lot of salespeople were calling from up the mountain on hiking trips,” Cohen said. “This doesn’t work anymore.”
The structured hybrid approach is the most effective for the company, said Danielle Stickler, a Zoom spokeswoman, adding that it leaves Zoom “in a better position to use our proprietary technologies.” Meta spokesperson Dave Arnold said the back-to-the-office policy asks teams to prioritize time together to foster strong collaboration and a vibrant culture.
Amazon offers “transition support” to employees who are required to relocate, who make up a “relatively small percentage” of its workforce, though it didn’t specify what that support entails.
“There’s more energy, collaboration, and communication that’s been happening since we’ve been working together at least three days a week,” said Rob Munoz, an Amazon spokesperson. “We’ve heard this from a lot of the employees and companies around our offices.”
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesever sits on Amazon’s board.)
Even as millions of workers across the country are told to return to their cubicles, the office occupancy rate has remained relatively flat over the past year. The country’s 10 largest metropolitan areas averaged 47.2 percent of pre-pandemic levels last week, according to data from Castel systems. This time last year, the average was about 44 percent.
The late return befuddles leaders from town halls to the Oval Office as downtown struggles to recover from the pandemic. President Biden recently called on Cabinet officials to urge their staff to return to their offices this fall, as downtown struggles to regain pre-pandemic commuter traffic. (a July report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that 17 of 24 federal agencies have average building utilization of 25 percent or less).
About 52% of American workers who are able to work remotely work under hybrid arrangements, according to Data from Gallup, while 29 percent of them live exclusively in remote places. And although executives like Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg have argued that the rise of flexible working has had a detrimental effect on productivity, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that labor productivity rose 3.7 percent in the second quarter of 2023, and 1.3 percent in the second quarter of 2023. cent compared to the second quarter of 2023. this time last year.
While employers cite the collaborative benefits of spending time together in person, the majority of hybrid arrangements don’t foster the connections bosses want to see, according to Rob Cross, an associate professor of management at Babson College who studies collaboration across companies through surveys. Email and meeting data. He found that delegating a certain number of days in office misses the point, “because you don’t get the right people who need to cooperate”.
“What we’re seeing more successful is when companies use some form of analytics” to determine which workers have to show up on the same days, Cross said. It is estimated that only about 5 percent of organizations follow this approach. “The leaders are just saying, ‘We need cooler moments,'” Cross said. “They don’t look and say, ‘These are the interactions we need to stimulate.'”
Cisco is trying out the team-based approach. The technology company gives “each team autonomy” in determining how and when to work, according to Jitu Patel, Cisco’s executive vice president and general manager of security and collaboration. The goal, Patel said, is to “excite people” to come into the office to connect with colleagues without overburdening them or limiting their ability to do focused work — something that has been a struggle in the age of bloated Zoom meetings.
“Video has evolved into a very commercial medium of communication,” Patel said, adding that the abundance of meetings creates an “absence of roaming time” that can drain employees.
Software company Workday has also faced an “avalanche of activity” amid the return to the office, according to Ashley Goldsmith, the company’s chief people officer. The bulk of a company’s employees spend half of their time each quarter in the Workday office or on site with a client, potential client, or other external partner. Workday also recently launched a program that allows employees to work remotely, from anywhere, for up to 30 days a year.
“We found that different teams were experiencing an increased workload due in part to the shift to mixed working and shifting priorities, which created a busy meeting schedule,” Goldsmith said. “Cooperative overload has been particularly prominent among our high performers.”
When it comes to office time, employees are looking for “high-level experiences they can’t get at home,” according to Chase Garbarino, CEO of workplace software company HqO. Free food, cool tools and attractive workspaces are a big draw, Garbarino said, but the HqO data shows that “the number one thing people want from a workplace is space to focus.”
“You wouldn’t put them in a place that was designed specifically for social interaction,” Garbarino said. “You should be able to focus.”
For workers who value flexibility, the shift toward in-office work is not welcome. Lauren Targos, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, gave birth to triplets last summer. Being able to do her work remotely gave the 37-year-old some relief when she returned to work. During meetings, she would often step away from the camera to pump or nurse without having to miss the discussions. I’ve squeezed the head-down work between nap times and feeding schedules.
A year later, Targos said she found it difficult to take care of three young children even with the help of her husband and nanny, but she enjoys always being around when her children need her. With President Biden calling on federal employees to return to their offices this fall, she may soon have to endure a two-hour commute during rush hour in Chicago and rework her childcare plan — or consider a more drastic change.
“It might be worth giving up my job and trying to find one where I can have more flexibility to be around them,” Targos said.
However, finding remote work is becoming more and more difficult. Nearly 8 percent of all job openings now advertise remote work or hybrid work, according to Nick Pinker, director of economic research for North America at Indeed Haring Lab. He said this was down from 9.7 percent last year, but still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Dominic Joseph, a spokesman for the EPA, said the agency “will continue to follow OMB guidelines, listen to employee feedback, and monitor performance metrics as the agency continues to prioritize its mission to protect human health and the environment” amid the return to the office. .
For Greg Gallant, CEO of Muck Rack, a PR software company, it was “disappointing” to see some executives refuse to work remotely. Muck Rack has shed its offices during the pandemic, and Gallant said the shift has benefited employee well-being and productivity.
The company is now channeling the energy and resources that used to go into the offices to coffee and snacks and limiting work hours in order to create intentional (and less frequent) opportunities for employees to connect in person. On the occasion of International Coworking Day on August 9, the company rented coworking space and arranged happy hours in nearly a dozen cities across the country. About 75 employees attended – nearly a quarter of the company’s workforce.
“People are excited to come in and be together when they don’t have to,” Gallant said. He feels that many companies have eliminated telecommuting without genuinely trying it. “I hope more people see the potential here and don’t get caught up in the back-to-the-office narrative.
Caroline O’Donovan contributed to this report.